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Jim Prentice remembered as the ‘go-to guy’ in Harper’s cabinet

Jim Prentice meets with supporters during the premier's annual Calgary Stampede Breakfast in Calgary, Alberta, July 7, 2014.

TODD KOROL/REUTERS

Jim Prentice was the stoic, determined grown-up of federal Tory politics.

In Stephen Harper's government, he was the early go-to minister for cabinet problem-solving in a new minority – the even-keel, responsible tiller to the newbies. Before that, long before the last chapter in his political career as Alberta premier, he took a lot of lumps, patiently, from squabbling conservatives on either side.

Mr. Prentice was never known for flash, but when Mr. Harper's cabinet convened for its first meeting in 2006, he stood out as ready.

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"There were only four people around the table who had ever served in a cabinet," said Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council, who now heads the civil service, and attended that 2006 meeting as a senior official.

"Jim was one of the rookies as well, and what was remarkable was how quickly he took to being a minister.

"He was deputy prime minister, really, from the beginning."

There was never an official deputy prime minister in Mr. Harper's government, and no one doubted the centre of power. But Mr. Prentice chaired the powerful operations committee in a minority government that constantly feared defeat.

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And, according to cabinet colleague Chuck Strahl, he managed to firmly vet the initiatives of fellow ministers – seeking more communications planning on one, or more policy justification on another, or a budget review – in a calm professional style that didn't rile.

"He was the go-to guy," Mr. Strahl said in an interview.

As minister, he was given the toughest portfolios for Conservatives, starting with Indian Affairs. In his first months, there was the Grand River land dispute in Caledonia, Ont., complete with barricades and burning tires. The Conservative government had declared it wasn't going ahead with Paul Martin's multibillion-dollar Kelowna Accord. "It was charged," said Mr. Wernick, who in mid-2006 moved to serve as Mr. Prentice's deputy minister.

But Mr. Prentice still went to address chiefs directly. He had been co-chair of the Indian Land Claims Commission, where the undemonstrative lawyer was demonstrably moved at hearings. He knew Phil Fontaine well, the then-national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

And when the Conservatives had to decide whether to go ahead with the Residential Schools Settlement, Mr. Prentice pushed it forward.

It wasn't just a matter of deciding. Mr. Prentice had to work to persuade cabinet and resistant Conservative MPs, Mr. Strahl said, on something that wasn't exactly part of the Tory platform. "It's a personal legacy," Mr. Wernick said.

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"I think he convinced the prime minister and his colleagues to move forward."

He was the industry minister when the pro-business Conservatives decided they couldn't let a U.S. firm take over iconic Canadian satellite-maker MDA – and he was sent out to explain the Harper government's multiple personalities.

As environment minister, he played defence on climate change, but was proud of his role in expanding national parks.

Among politicians, Mr. Prentice was a rare breed: respected around the cabinet table and halls of government for determined, capable work, rather than electioneering; for respectfulness over rhetoric.

"Decent. With vision," is the way former Conservative cabinet minister John Baird described him Friday.

In fact, he'd suffered lots of political knocks for decades before he went to Ottawa, from a 1986 run as a provincial Progressive Conservative in Calgary that he lost to a New Democrat.

He soldiered through conservative squabbling in tumultuous times. As treasurer of the federal PCs in the early nineties, when Brian Mulroney was rubbing a lot of Albertans the wrong way and the Reform Party was rising, Mr. Prentice was the party man in Alberta who had to take the lumps.

He ran as a unite-the-right Progressive Conservative in the riding of Calgary Southwest in 2002, until new Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper decided to run there – and Mr. Prentice withdrew. "Huge gesture for uniting the parties," Mr. Baird said.

And then Mr. Prentice ran a unite-the-right candidate for the PC leadership in 2003, finishing second.

But it wasn't campaign politics that marked his career in Ottawa. It was what he was when he got to office: when the Tories needed a clear head, he was the go-to guy.

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