In a lifetime of varied roles – as a young crown attorney, a government adviser, an energy company CEO, and, most recently, as Papa to eight beloved grandchildren – Michael E. J. Phelps was always a passionate force, full of enthusiasm for the task at hand.
Mr. Phelps, who died on April 20 in Vancouver at the age of 71 after a brief illness, possessed relentless curiosity that fuelled his many interests. A Winnipeg lawyer, he went on to work in Ottawa, serving as executive assistant to the minister of energy when the national energy program was implemented.
Mr. Phelps later moved with his young family to Vancouver to work in the private sector, and under his leadership Westcoast Energy grew from $2-billion in assets to more than $10-billion. After the company’s acquisition, he served on numerous corporate boards including Marathon Oil, CIBC and Canadian Pacific Railway, and was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2001.
“He was a passionate pursuer, whether it was in business or in life,” said Greg Ebel, chairman of Enbridge’s board of directors, which Mr. Phelps was a member of.
“He didn’t dabble in much,” said Julia Phelps, the middle of his three daughters. “He was always all in.”
Michael Everett Joseph Phelps was born on June 27, 1947, in Montreal to Arthur and Hendrina (née Van de Roer) Phelps. He moved with his family, including two brothers and a sister, to Winnipeg when he was 13, and soon another sister was born.
The young Mr. Phelps excelled at school, driven by an intellectual curiosity that never left him. He skipped two grades and graduated high school when he was 16. He was always a voracious reader – a quality that nearly everyone who describes Mr. Phelps mentions.
In high school, he started dating Joy Slimmon, whom he met at age 13 when his family moved next door to her family. She was drawn to his honesty, cleverness and kind heart. The couple married at 23 and had three daughters: Erica, Julia and Lindsay.
While Mr. Phelps’s first career choice was to be a pilot, his eyesight wasn’t good enough. He considered medicine, but after shadowing a doctor and nearly passing out, he decided to be a lawyer.
Following a bachelor of arts at the University of Winnipeg, a bachelor of laws at the University of Manitoba and a master of laws at the London School of Economics, Mr. Phelps became a Crown attorney in Winnipeg, then worked in private practice at Christie Turner DeGraves.
He was recruited to work in Ottawa for the federal Justice Department and served as senior adviser to the minister of justice. In 1980, when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals returned to power, Mr. Phelps became executive assistant to the former minister of energy, Marc Lalonde.
Mr. Phelps was Mr. Lalonde’s right-hand man when the reviled national energy program was implemented. It was a challenging time, but Mr. Phelps “always kept his cool and was a good go-between with the people of Alberta, the politicians in Alberta,” Mr. Lalonde said.
Mr. Lalonde and his former assistant became lasting friends. “He was a man of total integrity and good judgement,” Mr. Lalonde said.
In Ottawa, Mr. Phelps also formed a friendship with David MacNaughton, now Canada’s ambassador to the United States. Mr. MacNaughton remembers Mr. Phelps as being passionate – about public policy, about his family, about his friends.
“I always found that if I was going through a tough time or I had challenges in front of me … I could always call him and he would always listen. And there aren’t many people like that,” Mr. MacNaughton said.
Mr. Phelps was also extraordinarily well informed, Mr. MacNaughton recalled, which led to great conversations. “In a world today where we seem to have lost the civility of public discourse, he was always open to other ideas,” Mr. MacNaughton said. “He was good friends with people who were members of other parties and had different views, and would actively debate with him.”
In 1982, Mr. Phelps brought his government experience to the energy sector. He moved to Vancouver with his wife and their three young daughters, joining Westcoast Transmission as special adviser to the president.
He moved up the corporate ladder and, in 1987, at age 40, became president and chief executive officer of the newly named Westcoast Energy, which was transforming from a gas-pipeline operator to a broader energy company.
“I was fortunate,” Mr Phelps told The Globe and Mail in an interview in 2000. “The crash [in petroleum prices] meant restructuring for the industry, and opportunities were there to be seized by a whole new crew.”
Despite a demanding job, he put his family first, according to Julia. “He made sure we knew that if we needed him, we would always have him,” said Julia, a New York-based executive with media and entertainment company Viacom.
“Joy and his three daughters were everything,” said Mr. Ebel, who knew Mr. Phelps for nearly 30 years. “I don’t ever remember a conversation not starting with whatever the girls and Joy were up to, and then you would get to the business.”
In business, Mr. Phelps was good at easing tense situations. “He was a great fan of history, so he could pull out a Churchill quote or something else in those regards, and could make people laugh in difficult times,” Mr. Ebel said.
Mr. Phelps spearheaded Westcoast Energy’s acquisition by Duke Energy in 2001; the transaction closed the following year, valued at about US$8-billion. He remained on the board of Duke Energy, which spun off its natural-gas business as Spectra Energy, a company acquired by Enbridge in 2017.
Mr. Phelps’s enthusiasm for the energy sector was rooted in the industry’s impact. “He was passionate about doing everything he could to advance Canada, and energy was a fundamental building block of that,” Mr. Ebel said.
For his next career, Mr. Phelps founded and served as chairman of Dornoch Capital, a private investment company, from 2002 until his death.
Julia believes her father’s varied career path was driven by a mix of interest and opportunity. When she turned to him for job advice during university, he told her how he was open to interesting things that got him excited, which always led to more opportunities.
It helped, too, that so many different things captured his attention: business, history, travel, golf, skiing and, recently, Africa. “He went like six times in the last nine years, just because he became so fascinated with learning about the wildlife, the people, the culture, everything,” she said.
When Mr. Phelps served as chairman of the Vancouver General Hospital and UBC Hospital Foundation, it was another chance to immerse himself in new topics, this time brain research.
A proud Canadian, he was particularly keen to chair the Wise Persons’ Committee in 2003, a panel convened by the federal government to review Canada’s system of securities regulations, and to serve on the board of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC).
Most recently, however, Mr. Phelps devoted himself to his grandchildren, who range from ages 1 to 13. With grandchildren came a new audience to share his myriad interests. He instilled in all of them a love of books, history, travel, good food (especially oysters) and anything narrated by David Attenborough.
Mr. Phelps travelled with his oldest three grandsons to Europe and Africa, and also shared an obsession for watches. He loved visiting museums with his grandson and granddaughter, who live in New York; the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and the American Museum of Natural History were favourites. And with his youngest three grandsons, who lived nearby, he did everything from reading bedtime stories to picking them up from day care and school.
Julia said she never would have described her father as patient, until he became “Papa” to his grandkids.
“He had the most patience for them, just throwing snowballs, looking for fish, picking fruit, whatever it was,” she said. “He would go for hours and do really nothing, but it was everything to him.”
Mr. Phelps leaves his wife, Joy; three daughters and sons-in-law; eight grandchildren; a brother and two sisters; as well as extended family.