Calgary lawyer Jim Palmer was a political junkie. This addiction to public policy was in his blood – his great-grandfather was a Father of Confederation from Prince Edward Island. But his personal passion – burden, perhaps – was to be an unshakable Liberal activist in Conservative-dominated Alberta, which often amounted to a lonely, quixotic existence.
Mr. Palmer sometimes said his plight was as much the result of Liberal indifference as Conservative wiles. In the 1979 federal election, he took time off from building a top-tier law firm to seek the federal seat in Calgary South. It was in the era of Pierre Trudeau, who seemed compelled to ruffle Albertans’ feathers. As the slights piled up, Mr. Palmer was driven to exasperation, calling up the Liberal brass in Ottawa to say, as he described the conversation later, “For Christ’s sake, I’m running out here.”
He didn’t have a chance, garnering fewer than half the votes of his Conservative rival – and yet, as with much in his rich, busy life, the happy warrior expressed wry bemusement over his plight. A few months before he died on Aug. 27 – two days before his 85th birthday – he commented that the 1979 election loss was actually his biggest win. It meant he avoided being a Liberal MP in the early 1980s when the Trudeau government unleashed its National Energy Program, which was reviled in Alberta. “I couldn’t have come back home,” he said.
And that surely would have been tragic, because he was a passionate Albertan who built a great law firm, helped create a globe-spanning energy business, became a generous philanthropist for the arts, public policy and universities, and was a friend and mentor who could bridge the political divides in this country like nobody else.
Mr. Palmer loved people and he loved conversation, and he believed Canada derived its strength from collegiality across the political spectrum – and across geographies. While he thrived in Alberta’s oil economy, he never lost allegiance to his home province of PEI, where he built a summer home and invested in a conference on public service that bears his name at the University of Prince Edward Island.
When he failed to snare Calgary South, Western Canada lost what would have been a strong, thoughtful voice in Parliament. “It was too bad that he didn’t get to Ottawa because he was great at getting things done,” says Harry Campbell, chair of Burnet Duckworth & Palmer, the law firm Mr. Palmer helped build, and one of the lawyers he influenced deeply.
While he never served in Parliament, Mr. Palmer left his mark on public life as a mentor to a generation of business and political leaders, and as a legal thought leader who helped fashion the rules of taxation for business in this country.
‘You could feel the excitement in Calgary’
Law, too, was in his blood. Born Aug. 29, 1928, he was the fifth generation of Palmer lawyers from PEI; a great-grandfather and a grandfather had been premier, and his father was a judge. After earning his BA from McGill University, Mr. Palmer went to Dalhousie University’s law school in Halifax, graduating in 1952. He could have settled into a comfortable life in the tiny crucible of PEI, but he didn’t like the way the legal industry worked on the island – there were Conservative law firms and Liberal law firms, and the entire society seemed hopelessly split according to whether you were Catholic or Protestant.
He had thought about moving to Toronto, but first decided to help a friend drive out to Calgary for a wedding. It was love at first sight when he saw the bustling city of 130,000 nestled in the foothills, the mountains cresting the horizon. It was in the aftermath of the massive Leduc oil strike and Alberta was about to emerge as an energy powerhouse.
“You could feel the excitement in Calgary in 1952,” Mr. Palmer once recalled. “Nobody gave a damn about who you were – it was what you were.”
Mr. Palmer had a partner in this Calgary adventure – his new wife, Barbara, whom he married out of law school. They first met playing kick the can in elementary school, and she became his lifelong sweetheart. Their energy and wit were a great match. They were athletic partners, skiing together until their late 70s, when Jim’s physical challenges – mainly, lung and back problems – finally overcame his grit and determination. According to the youngest of their four daughters, Sarah Palmer Plunkett, “You know things are a little crazy when your seventy-something mother is picking up your seventy-something father on the ski hill.”