Skip to main content

James Coutts hands out leaflets while campaigning in Toronto in 1981.Edward Regan/The Globe and Mail

Jim Coutts, an accomplished political tactician who was a key adviser to two former Liberal prime ministers, has died after a long battle with cancer.

Mr. Coutts, 75, who was born in High River, Alta., and raised in nearby Nanton, was a secretary to Lester B. Pearson for two years and principal secretary to Pierre Trudeau for six.

Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said Wednesday he met Mr. Coutts in 1963 when the Albertan was working for Mr. Pearson after an unsuccessful bid to get elected federally in his home province.

"He was a great Liberal and a great Canadian," Mr. Chrétien said in a telephone interview. "I had a lot of occasion to spend some time with him on some trips fishing and hunting and so on and he was a quite an entertainer when he was out of the office. He was a very good guy and completely dedicated to the Liberal Party and to public life."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said on the social-media site Twitter that he is "starting 2014 on a sad note (after) my wise and good friend Jim Coutts lost his battle with cancer last night."

Mr. Coutts was a lawyer with an MBA from Harvard. Throughout the years Pierre Trudeau was in power, he was considered the second-most powerful man in the country. Anybody who wanted to get to the prime minister had to go through him.

Mr. Coutts acknowledged to The Globe and Mail in 1984 that he was a tough boss. "But I figured if you were hired to work for the PMO, you didn't need a psychotherapy session every afternoon to figure out how you were feeling."

In 1981, Mr. Trudeau appointed the incumbent Liberal MP in the Toronto riding of Spadina to the Senate to allow Mr. Coutts to run in what was presumed to be a safe seat. Mr. Coutts lost to New Democrat Dan Heap. Then he lost again to Mr. Heap in 1984.

After abandoning the idea of running for politics, Mr. Coutts went into business and enjoyed a successful international career in industrial explosives for mining and road construction.

Bob Rae, the former interim leader of the Liberal Party, said Mr. Coutts had been a good friend of the Rae family and his passing is a terrible blow.

"He was a deeply caring and generous friend, and a source of wise advice and good humour right to the end. He loved his family and friends, he loved politics, the Liberal Party, his native province Alberta and his country," Mr. Rae said in an e-mail. "There are countless people and organizations that have benefited from his counsel and his extraordinary generosity, and have enjoyed his good company and sense of fun."

Dick O'Hagan, who was Mr. Pearson's press secretary and worked closely with Mr. Coutts during the Ottawa years, said his friend died in hospital in Toronto just before midnight on New Year's Eve. He had been sick with cancer for years but was not admitted to St. Michael's until the morning of his final day.

"He was an utterly, totally dedicated Liberal," said Mr. O'Hagan. "Jim's characteristics were a very razor-sharp mind and a terrific sense of dedication and loyalty."

Mr. Coutts was a person of many parts, said Mr. O'Hagan. "He was a multifaceted man, very interested in the arts, very interested in painting, very interested in Canadian history, particularly political history with an emphasis on the West."

He was also a philanthropist and had a major connection with the University of Lethbridge to which he dedicated his home in Nanton, said Mr. O'Hagan.

Ted Menzies, a former Alberta Conservative MP who was a cabinet minister in the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said Mr. Coutts was always a gentleman. "His name will live on in the immaculately maintained farmstead he kept at Nanton," Mr. Menzies said on Twitter.

Mr. Coutts was not married and had no children. He is survived by a sister who lives Alberta and many nieces and nephews.

Interact with The Globe