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Janet Holder (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Janet Holder (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Enbridge's Janet Holder: Pushing west, with muscle Add to ...

To understand Janet Holder, you could start with the surprising image of her at age 32 – a five-foot-nothing power-lifter tipping the scales at 112 pounds and, by some miracle of muscle and mechanics, dead-lifting nearly three times her weight. Or you could start six years later, when she discovered she had cancer, but managed to do so much work through six months of chemo and the three subsequent surgeries that she was promoted while she was being treated.

But given that the now 54-year-old recently signed on to what is arguably one of the toughest corporate positions in Canada, it’s worth starting last June, at the Calgary headquarters of Enbridge Inc. The conversation around the boardroom table had settled on Northern Gateway, Enbridge’s $6.6-billion proposal to build a twin-pipeline system to the Pacific coast, carrying Canadian crude for export to California and, more importantly, Asia.

The project is among the highest-profile targets for environmental and first nations critics, many of whom see Gateway as a threat to their culture and to the livelihood of Northern B.C., as well as to the salmon and sea life that would be endangered should one of the pipes or tankers spill. And its profile has risen even higher in recent weeks, as problems with TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline bring even greater attention to a West Coast alternative.

For Enbridge, that June meeting came at something of a corporate crossroads. After years of preparation, Gateway was preparing to enter a new stage, with hearings set to start in the New Year. Many negotiations remained with first nations, and Enbridge wanted a new face atop the project. Executives discussed who might be a good fit.

They called on Ms. Holder, then the company’s Toronto-based president of gas distribution, for her opinion.

“I said, ‘I agree with everything we’ve been saying. I agree with the people we’re discussing. But we’re missing one probably very key person to do this job,’” she recalls, between bites of grilled chicken salad, as she sits atop a bar-height chair at Sociale, a swish Calgary restaurant.

“They said, ‘Well, who’s that?’ I said, ‘It’s me.’ ”

She had just volunteered to upend her comfortable Toronto life. And she had not, at that point, broached the subject with her husband, Neal, who restores and races vintage cars, and whose access to a racetrack would be severely curtailed in northern B.C. She flew home to talk it over. (He agreed.)

Ms. Holder takes a sip of water, then compares building Gateway, which stands to end Canada’s utter dependence on the U.S. for oil exports, as being on the same scale as construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway a half-century ago. “Not a lot of people have the opportunity to say that they were involved with something as significant to Canada as this project,” she says.

She acknowledges that it won’t be easy. But, she adds, “everybody would have put up their hand if it were a slam dunk.”

Ms. Holder is, by most measures, an odd choice to head up Gateway, as the company’s executive vice-president, western access. She has spent nearly two decades at Enbridge, but most of her recent executive experience is in gas distribution. Delivering blue flames on stoves is far different from getting crude oil to ocean tankers. Add to that some high-profile roles in Toronto’s business community – chairman of the city’s 2011 United Way campaign, the biggest on the continent, and a director with Hydro One Inc., among others – and Ms. Holder does not seem like the kind of person eager to leave the country’s corporate mecca.

In other ways, Ms. Holder’s move makes eminent sense. One of the most pressing ambitions for Canada’s energy sector today is to open up exports to Asia. That effort is being largely led by women: both the past and current leaders of the Kitimat LNG project are women. The head of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, which is leading another major LNG project, as well as the Premier of B.C., who will play an important role as these projects come forward, are both women.

Perhaps more importantly for Ms. Holder, however, she holds deep connections to the region. She grew up in Prince George. While she was at university in New Brunswick, she worked back at the pulp mills in Northern B.C. during the summer. Her childhood neighbour was a game warden who took kids along when he set bear traps. She is avid enough about rural living that she has already selected the ATVs she plans to buy (Polaris), the car she will use to brave winter (a Subaru), the number of horses she will own (three) and the type of meat she will raise for herself (chickens, in summer).

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