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Legal lion Jim Palmer's roots go deep in Calgary Add to ...

We actually merged our international business with a Montreal firm at one point but it didn’t really work for us. We thought we would get referral work but any referrals went to Toronto in those days. We haven’t done anything since.

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. It is not just the overhead of travelling to meetings but the overhead of big billers not being able to bill because they are doing other things. We came fairly close a couple of times but decided against it. And we’re big enough now to get the big work.

Your offices are in a new skyscraper completed in the teeth of the recent downturn. Isn’t it a symbol of the cyclical economy?

Yes, but it’s amazing how much money there is in this town. People don’t realize that. More and more is being put back [through donations] but it’s the old story – it’s a bit of monopoly money for people; a measuring stick to see how they are doing. Also, they don’t realize how much money it is and they are still nervous. And 2008 scared the hell out of everybody, including me.

There are people like Murray Edwards and Al Markin giving a lot of money and there is a kind of pride in the city that we can do it. It’s, at first, the pride against Edmonton, the idea that they just get the government to do it for them, and the pride here that we are doing it ourselves.

Is Calgary still entrepreneurial?

Yes, but it has changed. When I came here, it would be three or four guys getting together and hiring a geologist. There were a whole lot of mineral rights owned by the government, which would be put up for bids. You would get, say, 5,000 acres and you had to do a geological study and you could keep [the rights]for a couple of years. It was really a real estate play and you hoped someone would come along and find something near you. It was more of an individual thing, but now it’s a great big company game.

The income trusts were great – a whole new thing that kept everybody busy. Now that’s gone. There are still companies getting started but they are having a tough time. Today, people know where the oil is, but the first well has to be pretty good and [extracting it]is very expensive. So it’s a matter of big companies buying other companies.

You ran federally for the Liberals in the late 1970s, and have been a party supporter all your life. Will you be the last Liberal standing in Alberta?

It’s tough. During the Paul Martin era, I wanted them to open a Western prime minister’s office here in Calgary but it never happened. And provincially, I’m through with politics. I spent a lot of time with [the Liberal leadership]after the Conservative government brought in oil and gas royalty changes [in 2007] It was a marvellous opportunity for us [to oppose the changes] but nothing happened. So I said at the end, ‘I’m through, boys.’

If we had opposed [the royalty revamp] then we would have had the oil industry with us; we would have had some money to run an election. After all, everything dried up economically and it was not just the oil coming out of the ground but the ancillary jobs in the country that go with it. The only other time we had such a chance was with Laurence Decore [the late leader who challenged the Conservatives in the early 1990s]

Peter C. Newman has written a book about the death of Liberal Canada and the prospect of long-term Tory dominance. Is that how you see things?

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