He built a great law firm, mentored a generation of business leaders, and is still leaving his mark on Calgary philanthropy, but legal lion Jim Palmer has one big regret – he could never persuade Albertans to vote Liberal. Now, at 83, the transplanted Maritimer is throttling back his hours at Burnet Duckworth & Palmer LLP, while watching a new economic and political age dawn in his hometown of the past 60 years. This bow-tied warrior, slowed by physical ailments but still engaged in law and public policy, looks back – and ahead.
How did you end up in Calgary?
I came here in 1952. After Dalhousie Law School, I was articling at home in Prince Edward Island and thinking of going to Toronto to look around. I got a call from a friend who was heading out to Calgary to get married and asked if I would drive with her. I came out to visit a university roommate and never went back.
Weren’t you leaving a distinguished family in the East?
My great-grandfather, Edward Palmer, was a Father of Confederation in PEI. He voted against it, but he accepted all the accolades. And he’s in the picture [Robert Harris’s group painting of the 1864 Confederation leaders] But you could feel the excitement in Calgary in 1952. Nobody gave a damn about who you were – it was about what you were.
It was different coming from PEI, which, in those days, like Ireland, was divided into Catholics and Protestants – except we didn’t shoot each other. There was none of that in Calgary. And Charlottetown had 30 lawyers and 12,000 people, but no industry – and you had to be with the party in power if you wanted to do well.
Did you miss the East?
For the first couple of years. Every time I went over a hill, I looked for the water, and there wasn’t any. At first, I articled for a firm that I didn’t like very much. If I’d been doing a little better in Calgary, I would probably have gone back to PEI, but I didn’t want to go back with my tail between my legs.
I went over to an oil company, Texaco, for nine months just to park. I had nothing to do, so I was exhausted each night. You listened for the squeak of the coffee cart at 10 and 3. A friend phoned to say there was an opening at Burnet Duckworth. I was told that Frank Burnet, at 65, had the finest legal mind in Western Canada, so I beetled over pretty fast and he became a great mentor, a wonderful guy.
You still have a summer home on PEI. Are you a Westerner or an Easterner?
Westerner. It’s the mountains. I did a lot of backpacking and hiking and I skied until three years ago. My wife Barbara, who is a better skier, said, ‘I’m not picking you up any more.’
But how has it been navigating the ups and downs of the Alberta economy?
We’ve had some tough times. We were the first ones to let people go in the 1980s, and we learned our lesson: Don’t be the first. The firm has done well over all, because we’ve been here for the right times, as well.
What was the turning point for you?
When I was with Texaco, I met a chap named Angus Mackenzie who was selling something that told you what was under the ground. I never did understand the oil industry underneath the ground, but he used to come in and we would chat. When I left Texaco, I ran into him on the street, and he said, ‘Hell, I don’t think we have a lawyer.’ It was a big turning point because he spent the rest of his life going around the world getting oil concessions and I went with him.
But I actually enjoyed practising law. When I was travelling, I would see a lot of the expats and it is a different life for them, and I liked the life here in Calgary.
Weren’t you tempted to merge your firm with another player?