It was a measure of Jim Prentice that he accepted with dignity the most high-profile and humbling disappointment of his political career, and then he got on with his life. Not that the process was easy.
After a successful run in federal politics, including key cabinet roles, and the corporate world that combined to set him up for a shot at becoming Tory leader and, maybe, prime minister, Mr. Prentice instead won the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives. He became premier, taking the helm of a party that had governed Alberta for four decades.
He lasted about seven months, leading the party to a humbling defeat in 2015, and earning a sobering place in Alberta political history as the man at the helm as the PC dynasty ended.
“He took it hard like you would expect a leader would and maybe should,” says Chuck Strahl, a former Chilliwack MP who sat with Mr. Prentice at Stephen Harper’s cabinet table and was part of a circle of friends of the same age who travelled together and had “been through the fires” together.
“[Mr. Prentice] took the loss. He shouldered it. He didn’t dwell on it or become a miserable guy or anything. Even though it was a big, big thing for him, he was also a big enough man to move on from it.”
Family, friends and colleagues of Mr. Prentice are remembering that resilience and humility after his death, with three others, in an airplane crash last week in Kelowna, B.C. The group was returning from a trip to play golf in the Okanagan community. Mr. Prentice was 60 years old.
Mr. Prentice was a lawyer who was also at home in the highest executive levels of one of Canada’s largest banks, but he always dreamed of being a politician. And while he seemed to have it all – brains, ideas, political savvy, a genuinely affable manner and a network of friends in high places – his career will be remembered as much for the valleys as the peaks.
Colleagues say he was a savvy cabinet minister. After the Conservatives won office in 2006, Mr. Harper relied on Mr. Prentice to grapple with tough files in Indian Affairs and Northern Development as well as Industry and Environment. He also was chair of the operations committee.
Mr. Prentice had an incredible work ethic and liked to delve deeply into policy issues, according to Stephen Kelly, his former chief of staff. Mr. Kelly remembers Mr. Prentice often giving his staff up to 400 pages of reading and briefing notes to review over the weekend.
“He had a level of energy that was really hard to keep up with,” acknowledges Mr. Kelly, who would later follow Mr. Prentice to the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, where Mr. Prentice worked as a vice-chair and senior executive vice-president after leaving federal politics in 2010. “For him, Monday was the middle of the week.”
“He could have taken a much easier path in politics, but he didn’t,” Mr. Kelly says. “He had a desire to serve that knew no end.”
But Mr. Strahl also remembers “Gentleman Jim” as a truly nice guy in politics, who genuinely made others in the room feel like they had his complete and full attention because they did.
“He wasn’t one of those guys that was looking over your shoulder trying to see who was the next guy he could shake hands with,” Mr. Strahl said, calling that a rare quality in politics. “Jim always made sure the person he was with felt like he or she was the most important person in the room.”
In a 2014 interview with The Canadian Press, Mr. Prentice, himself, shed some light on the origins of his approach to people, recalling how he worked summers in a coal mine to raise money for his university studies. “I always said I got my education [in the coal mines]. I learned teamwork. I learned respect for other people. I learned the fact that the smartest guy in the room is often not the guy you think is the smartest guy.”
Later, in an interview with the CBC after he became premier, Mr. Prentice also recalled some advice from his father, once the youngest player signed on to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “He always reminded me you’re only as good as your next shift and never to get too focused on your own press clippings.”
Peter Eric James Prentice was born in South Porcupine, a neighbourhood in the northern Ontario city of Timmins. He was the son of Eric and Wilma Prentice. Eric Prentice played five games for the Leafs after being signed at age 17, and later became a gold miner. (Jim Prentice’s uncle, Dean, had a long career in the NHL, playing for the New York Rangers, the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings.)
The family moved to Alberta in 1969, settling in west-central town of Grande Cache. Mr. Prentice earned a bachelor of commerce degree at the University of Alberta and a bachelor of laws degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax. But he was always clear about his interest in a political career. Even as a first-year law student at Dalhousie in the late 1970s, Mr. Prentice was open about wanting to pursue a career in politics. He even talked about becoming Alberta premier one day, according Cecil Hawkins, a law-school classmate and long-time friend.
“I knew from the first time I met him that he was going to be a player,” Mr. Hawkins says. “He was going to make his mark.”
While at Dalhousie, Mr. Prentice suffered one of many political defeats in his life – losing a bid to be president of the student law society to a future federal court judge. It didn’t help that he was a nervous public speaker, almost shaking at times, Mr. Hawkins recalls – a sharp contrast to the smooth political persona he would develop later in life.
“He wanted to be a politician and he forced himself to get through it,” Mr. Hawkins explains.
Calgary lawyer James Rooney, a close friend and former law partner of Mr. Prentice, says Mr. Prentice probably lost more times than he won in politics. But he kept coming back because had a strong sense of wanting to serve and ideas he wanted to see implemented, he says.
Mr. Prentice was defeated by an NDP candidate in a bid to win a seat in the Alberta legislature. In 2002, he won the federal PC nomination in Calgary-Southwest, but stepped down when Stephen Harper, newly elected as leader of the Canadian Alliance, ran in a by-election in the riding. A 2003 bid to lead the federal PCs ended in defeat to Peter MacKay.
Finally, in 2004, he won the riding of Calgary Centre-North for the federal Conservatives. In 2006, he entered cabinet.
Still, friends say Mr. Prentice worked hard at becoming a better politician. When Mr. Prentice was a cabinet minister, he would come back to Calgary on weekends and go door-knocking in his riding, even when there was no election looming. “He would do it for fun,” Mr. Rooney says. “He just loved to talk to people and see what they were thinking.”
Throughout, hockey was a big part of his life. Jim Prentice grew up as a rink rat in northern Ontario, and continued to play hockey in adulthood.
“One of the things he would say is: ‘You have to understand hockey if you want to understand politics because hockey is team sport; it’s rough-and-tumble and then afterward you shake hands and have to get along,’” Mr. Rooney says.
In 2010, Mr. Prentice resigned from the federal government to work at the CIBC. Within four years, however, he returned to politics to seek and secure the leadership of the Alberta PCs. As premier, he sought to manage the province as oil prices plunged.
Katherine O’Neill, now president of the Alberta PCs, recalls Mr. Prentice convening a meeting with her where he made the case for her to run for a seat in the Alberta legislature. Ms. O’Neill, a former Globe and Mail reporter, was reluctant because she had young children.
During a half-hour meeting in his office, Ms. O’Neill recalls that Mr. Prentice talked about the need for diverse voices at the political table including younger people and women. The then-premier described politics as not being merely a means of employment, but a means of serving the public.
“He talked about the fact that it’s a lot of hard work and he understood the sacrifice. He said that it’s really worth it in the end because you’ll have good people making decisions and you can only have a stronger province.”
Ms. O’Neill ended up running, but she was defeated in the 2015 election.
She said that after the PCs’ defeat, Mr. Prentice quietly helped with fundraising, although he avoided any larger role. “He knew the party had to turn a chapter on what was happening and he had to turn aside.”
Mr. Strahl said Mr. Prentice was immensely happy outside the spotlight. He was able to better juggle his commitment to family, including his grandchildren, and professional interests. He joined a Washington think tank earlier this year – the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center – and was working on a book about energy and the environment.
While Mr. Prentice leaves a notable political legacy, Mr. Strahl said his friend’s family is key to what he leaves behind. “He was tremendously proud of them and, at this stage of his life, had a tremendous work-life balance that made sure he always had time for his family.
“He was well loved.”
Mr. Prentice leaves his wife, Karen, three daughters and two grandchildren.Report Typo/Error
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