Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Lawyer Jim Palmer ‘a rare breed, and of the old school’

To the end, Jim Palmer loved coming to the office of the law firm he helped build, Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer, and doing deals in his role as chairman emeritus.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Calgary lawyer Jim Palmer was a political junkie. This addiction to public policy was in his blood – his great-grandfather was a Father of Confederation from Prince Edward Island. But his personal passion – burden, perhaps – was to be an unshakable Liberal activist in Conservative-dominated Alberta, which often amounted to a lonely, quixotic existence.

Mr. Palmer sometimes said his plight was as much the result of Liberal indifference as Conservative wiles. In the 1979 federal election, he took time off from building a top-tier law firm to seek the federal seat in Calgary South. It was in the era of Pierre Trudeau, who seemed compelled to ruffle Albertans' feathers. As the slights piled up, Mr. Palmer was driven to exasperation, calling up the Liberal brass in Ottawa to say, as he described the conversation later, "For Christ's sake, I'm running out here."

He didn't have a chance, garnering fewer than half the votes of his Conservative rival – and yet, as with much in his rich, busy life, the happy warrior expressed wry bemusement over his plight. A few months before he died on Aug. 27 – two days before his 85th birthday – he commented that the 1979 election loss was actually his biggest win. It meant he avoided being a Liberal MP in the early 1980s when the Trudeau government unleashed its National Energy Program, which was reviled in Alberta. "I couldn't have come back home," he said.

Story continues below advertisement

And that surely would have been tragic, because he was a passionate Albertan who built a great law firm, helped create a globe-spanning energy business, became a generous philanthropist for the arts, public policy and universities, and was a friend and mentor who could bridge the political divides in this country like nobody else.

Mr. Palmer loved people and he loved conversation, and he believed Canada derived its strength from collegiality across the political spectrum – and across geographies. While he thrived in Alberta's oil economy, he never lost allegiance to his home province of PEI, where he built a summer home and invested in a conference on public service that bears his name at the University of Prince Edward Island.

When he failed to snare Calgary South, Western Canada lost what would have been a strong, thoughtful voice in Parliament. "It was too bad that he didn't get to Ottawa because he was great at getting things done," says Harry Campbell, chair of Burnet Duckworth & Palmer, the law firm Mr. Palmer helped build, and one of the lawyers he influenced deeply.

While he never served in Parliament, Mr. Palmer left his mark on public life as a mentor to a generation of business and political leaders, and as a legal thought leader who helped fashion the rules of taxation for business in this country.

'You could feel the excitement in Calgary'

Law, too, was in his blood. Born Aug. 29, 1928, he was the fifth generation of Palmer lawyers from PEI; a great-grandfather and a grandfather had been premier, and his father was a judge. After earning his BA from McGill University, Mr. Palmer went to Dalhousie University's law school in Halifax, graduating in 1952. He could have settled into a comfortable life in the tiny crucible of PEI, but he didn't like the way the legal industry worked on the island – there were Conservative law firms and Liberal law firms, and the entire society seemed hopelessly split according to whether you were Catholic or Protestant.

He had thought about moving to Toronto, but first decided to help a friend drive out to Calgary for a wedding. It was love at first sight when he saw the bustling city of 130,000 nestled in the foothills, the mountains cresting the horizon. It was in the aftermath of the massive Leduc oil strike and Alberta was about to emerge as an energy powerhouse.

Story continues below advertisement

"You could feel the excitement in Calgary in 1952," Mr. Palmer once recalled. "Nobody gave a damn about who you were – it was what you were."

Mr. Palmer had a partner in this Calgary adventure – his new wife, Barbara, whom he married out of law school. They first met playing kick the can in elementary school, and she became his lifelong sweetheart. Their energy and wit were a great match. They were athletic partners, skiing together until their late 70s, when Jim's physical challenges – mainly, lung and back problems – finally overcame his grit and determination. According to the youngest of their four daughters, Sarah Palmer Plunkett, "You know things are a little crazy when your seventy-something mother is picking up your seventy-something father on the ski hill."

As a young man in Calgary, Mr. Palmer first worked for a law firm that he didn't particularly like, then drifted over to the Canadian arm of the oil giant Texaco. It was boring work – the big moments each day came with the squeak of the coffee wagon across the floor. But the tedium was broken when he met a canny oilman named Angus Mackenzie, who at that time was selling a method for finding new wells. Mr. Palmer never entirely understood the technology, but he liked Mr. Mackenzie's style and kept him in mind.

His boredom at Texaco meant he was receptive when a friend called about an opening at the law firm 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," Mr. Palmer later recalled. Soon after, he ran into Mr. Mackenzie on the street, and as the two got talking, the oilman invited Mr. Palmer to be his lawyer. It was the beginning of one of the most successful partnerships in the oil patch. According to Mr. Palmer, Mr. Mackenzie "spent the rest of his life going around the world getting oil concessions and I went with him."

'You had to find the goddamn oil then'

Mr. Palmer became more than a lawyer, taking on the role of energy entrepreneur. Their principal corporate vehicle, Sunningdale Oils, was hugely successful as a nimble independent, helping find and develop important fields in the North Sea and the Middle East, including the North Sea's Brae Field and Abu Dhabi's Abu Al Bukhoosh field.

Story continues below advertisement

In his later years, Mr. Palmer was nostalgic about those days. He and Mr. Mackenzie, he explained, were risk takers willing to bet on a piece of frontier. "You had to find the goddamn oil then," he said, while in today's world of unconventional oil, the location may be known, but the economics are a challenge. So much of the business these days is an accounting exercise, he recently lamented.

At Burnet Duckworth, Mr. Palmer quickly became a partner – his surname was added to the firm's name – and he advised a generation of bright young lawyers. One of them was Regina-born Murray Edwards, who articled with Burnet Duckworth & Palmer in 1983 during the depths of the post-NEP downturn. The firm was heavily involved in securities law, and it was hurt badly by the financing drought (rich irony, given Mr. Palmer's Liberal leanings).

Mr. Edwards likes to quip that he only missed being caught in a downsizing of young associates because he was out of the office that day. Now a financier and business leader, he recalls that in the darkest hours, Mr. Palmer was the same incurable optimist as he was in life and politics.

"He was kind of Churchillian," says Mr. Campbell. "He was very strong and he never got ruffled."

The firm survived and grew into one of the main homegrown legal players in Calgary. When Mr. Campbell joined in 1973, it had 12 lawyers; the place is now home to 150 lawyers. But it has never become part of the national megafirms. It merged briefly with a Quebec company, but it was not a good fit and the combination ended. Later, the firm would receive inquiries but never got to the altar. "We've interviewed or been interviewed by every big firm in the country, but we have a good culture. Everyone gets along, it's fairly loose, and we don't have the overhead of those bigger firms," Mr. Palmer said. Right to the end, he loved coming to the office and doing deals in his role as chairman emeritus – still wearing the bow ties he favoured.

BD&P was heavily involved in the big energy financing trend of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the tax-advantaged energy trusts. When these were shut down by Ottawa in 2006, it was thought the law firm might be damaged, but there was more business as the trusts converted back to dividend-paying corporations. Yet Mr. Palmer missed the excitement of the trust era, and the financing options for energy companies.

A dyed-in-the-wool Liberal

Over the years Mr. Palmer's philanthropy grew in Calgary and across Canada – from the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra to the Watermark Theatre in PEI. In 2007, he and a network of friends and colleagues convinced the Alberta-born, Toronto-based economist Jack Mintz to come west again to start a school of public policy at the University of Calgary, where Mr. Palmer had been chancellor and was a prominent fundraiser. The Palmers funded the James and Barbara Palmer Chair in Public Policy, which Mr. Mintz occupies.

Wade MacLauchlan, former president of the University of Prince Edward Island, says Mr. Palmer did not see a sharp distinction between his public obligations and his legal career. "He melded his sense of public service into his approach to the practice of law. He was a rare breed, and of the old school, when it came to seeing the legal profession as a form of public service."

Mr. Palmer's last years of declining health were difficult. He had suffered for years from a bulging disc in his back, which led to complications that required leg braces. But he never stopped meeting friends for mountain hikes or, near the end, just walks. He continued to read widely, owning a personal library so large and diverse that he applied a Dewey Decimal catalogue system to keep it organized.

His wife, Barbara, was a huge support. Daughters Valerie Seaman and Sarah Palmer Plunkett recall that five years ago, he emerged from a doctor's office and blurted out to Barbara, "They're taking out my one lung – what am I going to do?" She quickly advised: "Jim, you've got two of them." He coped with one lung with the same cheerful acceptance as when he was losing political battles. But the combination of lung and heart ailments eventually wore him down, combined with the effects of old age. He leaves his wife, four daughters – Valerie, Noelle, Jane and Sarah – and six grandchildren.

In late life, he got some satisfaction from the sense that Alberta, despite polarization in the extremes, was continuing to hold the centre in provincial elections. He was quietly pleased that Alison Redford became Conservative leader and premier because he liked her values. Just after Ms. Redford rose to the premiership in 2011, Mr. Palmer was walking in his Calgary neighbourhood when a prominent organizer for another Tory candidate shouted to him, "Jim, you've got your government now." Mr. Palmer couldn't help but agree a bit.

And yet he remained a dyed-in-the-wool Liberal. Right to the end, he was urging the Justin Trudeau camp to adopt the idea that, if the party regained power in Ottawa, the government would create a Western Canadian office of the prime minister to have a finger on the region's sensibilities. It was a theme he had been pursuing since the Paul Martin era, based, no doubt, on his own humbling electoral experience.

His former articling student Mr. Edwards is now the kingpin of a business empire whose reach extends to the oil sands, NHL hockey, resorts, aerospace and investment management – and Mr. Palmer was entrusted with handling Mr. Edwards' will.

In July, the two men met for lunch to review the will, and Mr. Edwards recalls that after an hour, they had spent maybe 10 minutes talking about estate planning and 50 minutes talking about public policy. It was typical of Mr. Palmer, who was a great lawyer but whose underlying obsession, Mr. Edwards said, was "how to make the country a better place."

To submit an I Remember:

obit@globeandmail.com

Send us a memory of someone we've recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Report an error
About the Author
Senior Writer, Report on Business

Gordon Pitts is an author, public speaker and business journalist, with a focus on management, strategy, and leadership. He was the 2009 winner of Canada's National Business Book Award for his fifth book, Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨