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Leadership Stockwell Day battling skepticism with Pacific Future Energy

Stockwell Day, senior adviser, Pacific Future Energy

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Stockwell Day nearly collapsed from exhaustion while running in China five years ago.

He struggled to get his legs moving again after 36 kilometres, including a steep stretch along the Great Wall of China. Six kilometres from the end of the Great Wall Marathon, he became immobilized – feeling the effects of climbing thousands of steps along the course.

"It's uphill most of the way. It's the most gruelling marathon I've ever done. It was 31 degrees, humid, and they ran out of water," he said during our spring meeting at the Cactus Club Café on Vancouver's waterfront.

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An Australian runner gave him water with crystal nutrients. Mr. Day caught a second wind and made it across the finish line in Huangyaguan's Yin and Yang Square after six hours, 29 minutes and 26 seconds. But who's counting? Just completing the arduous course is a victory. "I still highly recommend it," he said.

At the time, he was a Conservative cabinet minister under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and determined to prove his long-distance mettle before beginning an Asian trade mission.

Over the years, he learned to persevere. As leader of the Canadian Alliance party, he had dark moments that made him the subject of political ridicule. Political observers have praised Mr. Day for reviving his career after stumbling out of the blocks in Ottawa. With the Harper government, he held key cabinet posts such as Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Treasury Board.

Mr. Day's grit as a running addict will come in handy in his role as senior adviser at Pacific Future Energy. The fledgling company wants to transport bitumen from Alberta's oil sands to northwestern British Columbia for refining. The idea is to load refined petroleum products such as diesel, gasoline, propane and jet fuel onto Asia-bound tankers.

Canada's energy industry has greeted the concept with skepticism, mainly because many refineries have slim profit margins at best, and major players are not clamouring to build new plants.

Still, Mr. Day and other Pacific Future Energy executives want to begin exporting in 2023 from the Prince Rupert area, assuming investors and commodity buyers can be secured. Newspaper publisher David Black is aiming to open the rival Kitimat Clean Ltd. oil refinery project in 2022.

Both proposals face long odds because of the enormous capital costs and concerns in British Columbia about the potential adverse environmental impact of transporting even refined oil products in ocean-going tankers. Pacific Future Energy backers say refined petroleum products would be much more easily contained than bitumen in a spill into the ocean.

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Mr. Day's mind races around. He covers an array of topics, from politics to the energy industry to food. While he is not obsessed with counting calories, he cautions that having extra weight takes its toll. "Every now and then, I will dive into a bowl of poutine. I'm not a fanatic, but I do recognize that if you put too much food into your diet, it's not to your advantage to carry a heavier load when you run. Every extra pound – you're going to be carrying that for 42 kilometres in a marathon," he said, digging into his grilled Cajun chicken on Caesar salad.

He began training for and running in marathons six years ago at the age of 58. The long hours and large workload in political life made it hard to stay in shape. "You're working late and somebody brings in pizza and you're pounding down four or five pieces," he said.

Our meeting came before Rachel Notley led the NDP to a majority government in Alberta on May 5, but Mr. Day already saw warning signs for Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservatives. Mr. Day, a former Alberta cabinet minister, said his old boss, Ralph Klein, would have frowned on Mr. Prentice's plans to raise personal income taxes.

"Mr. Prentice chose to significantly increase taxes and not go as hard on reining in spending. That position would not have survived at the cabinet table of fiscal conservatives with Ralph Klein," said Mr. Day, a former Alberta treasurer.

Ms. Notley's government introduced a bill in mid-June to hike taxes on corporations and high-income earners.

In a phone call in late June, Mr. Day said the rise of the Alberta NDP was a surprise: "I have to admit that I did not think that she would get a majority government. I'm still concerned generally about NDP economic policies, but I applaud her on some of the initial steps that she is making to reach out to people."

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Mr. Day is hoping the NDP government will embrace a made-in-Canada solution for stalled oil exports, and that Pacific Future Energy's project is the best option. He said a West Coast refinery makes economic sense because refinery modules built overseas could be efficiently shipped to B.C. and assembled near Prince Rupert.

Shortly after leaving politics in mid-2011, Mr. Day accepted an appointment in Vancouver as senior strategic adviser for McMillan LLP, helping the law firm broaden its interests in Asia and South America. Also in 2011, he joined the board of directors at investment banking firm RCI Capital Group Inc. and telecommunications company Telus Corp.

One aspect of political life that he does not miss is the scrutiny of his support for creationism.

During our lunch, he recalled that his religious beliefs were put under the microscope during the 2000 federal election campaign. "I believe our creator loves us and that we can have a wonderful relationship with our creator," he said between sips of sparkling mineral water. "But I never raised it as an issue during the campaign. The mainstream media in the United States does not get as hung up on politicians expressing themselves religiously as the mainstream Canadian media."

Mr. Day has developed thick skin after years of criticisms in political life, especially after he became leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2000. He was labelled gaffe-prone for arriving at a news conference on the shores of Okanagan Lake aboard a WaveRunner and wearing a wetsuit after he won a federal by-election in September, 2000.

He said he has no regrets about the incident, which critics called a lame publicity stunt designed to show his fitness and vitality. "That was totally my idea," he said, explaining he sought to appeal to younger voters.

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He suggested Pierre Trudeau got a free pass from the media for his stunts while prime minister: "Remember Pierre Trudeau and the famous shot of him bouncing off the diving board into the swimming pool or pirouetting behind the Queen? I realized that I was taking on a national media culture, which was very traditional. The national media types were upset that I would show up in a wetsuit instead of being more properly adorned."

Mr. Day was also slammed for remarking during the 2000 federal election campaign that Canadian jobs were flowing south like the Niagara River. The river flows north. He accepts responsibility for the photo op gone awry. "I wasn't thinking. I should have known better. That's life. That was off the cuff," he said. "I don't like to read from notes."

Jean Chrétien's Liberals won a huge majority in 2000, but Mr. Day says he is proud to have helped lay the groundwork for the merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party in 2003.

Since joining Pacific Future Energy last August, Mr. Day has delivered several speeches in his ad-lib fashion. He wants to open minds to the possibility of exporting bitumen in refined form. He will be working to help win support from First Nations and provincial and federal leaders.

Stalled plans for the Northern Gateway bitumen pipeline leave an opening for others to seek ways to move oil out of landlocked Alberta to the West Coast for export to Asia.

"We have to look at ways to maximize our natural resources. It can be done in a way that does not hurt the environment but gives great opportunities for First Nations," Mr. Day said. "We're serious and we're sincere. Bitumen from Alberta already goes to U.S. refineries, so the more we talk about our B.C. project, the more people listen."

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Stockwell Day, senior adviser, Pacific Future Energy

Age: 64

Place of birth: Barrie, Ont.

Education: Attended University of Victoria, but did not graduate.

Family: Second-eldest of six children; married to Valorie for nearly 44 years. They have three married sons and 14 grandchildren.

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Early business experience: Auctioneer in Kelowna, B.C.

Favourite sports teams: Montreal Canadiens, Manchester United.

Reading: Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada, by Conrad Black; Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.

Favourite cuisine: Korean; western barbecue.

Guilty pleasures: Yam fries; chocolate cherry Blizzard.

Two of his movie favourites: The Pursuit of Happyness; American Sniper.

Favourite music: Eclectic – classical, gospel, rhythm and blues, country. Fan of his musician brother, Matt Day.

On Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield's dropped football in the 1974 federal election campaign: "On that day of the Stanfield photo, that was the one pass he dropped. During the 2000 campaign, while we were waiting for the pilots, we threw around a football on the tarmac. Someone was about to throw it to me. I realized that if I drop this ball, that's a Stanfield moment. Thankfully, I caught the ball."

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