Former Alberta premier saw public life as a 'noble calling'

University shocked by sudden death of Jim Prentice.


Jim Prentice, former premier of Alberta and a distinguished University of Alberta alumnus, will be remembered for his career as a dedicated politician and a strong believer in public service.

Prentice, 60, died in a plane crash in British Columbia last night.

Prentice graduated with a bachelor of commerce degree from the U of A in 1977 and was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree in 2013. Speaking to the graduating class, he said that “public life remains a noble calling—and Canada remains a country that’s worthy of your passion and your talents.”

His career in politics spanned both federal and provincial arenas, and his background in business gave him a seasoned perspective that helped shape important policy, particularly in energy and the environment.

Prentice served as Alberta’s 16th premier from 2014 to 2015 before retiring from a career in law, public service and finance. First elected to the House of Commons in 2004 and again in 2006 and 2008, he served in the federal ministries of environment, industry, and Indian affairs and northern development. He represented Canada in climate change negotiations that culminated in the Copenhagen Accord of 2009, harmonized carbon emission policies for the Canadian and American transportation network and established the national policy to phase out dated coal-burning plants in Canada. In 2010, he left federal politics to become vice-chair of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC).

After a series of scandals by the Alberta Progressive Conservative government of then premier Alison Redford, Prentice returned to politics in 2013 and won the PC leadership race. His subsequent loss to the NDP in the 2015 election marked the end of both his time as premier and 44 years of PC rule in Alberta. Most recently, he was an energy adviser with Warburg Pincus, an international private equity firm.

Born July 20, 1956, in South Porcupine, Ont., Prentice seemed destined for a career in sports rather than politics. His father, Eric, and uncle Dean were both professional hockey players. Dean played 22 years in the NHL, and Eric had the distinction of being the youngest player ever signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Eric was also a coal miner and he despised politicians.

“My father didn't want me to go into politics,” Prentice said in 2013. “He was a humble, hard-working man and, frankly, he would sooner have walked across the street than choose to encounter a politician.”

In 2002, just as Prentice’s political career was on the rise, his father’s life was fading. After a long battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, the elder Prentice cried while watching his son—the politician—on TV.

“Not out of sorrow,” Prentice said, “but out of a pride that he did not expect to feel.”

University community mourns loss

U of A president David Turpin said Prentice was a great champion of university education, research and innovation.

“Canada and Alberta have lost a respected leader and dedicated public servant, and the University of Alberta has lost one of our most distinguished alumni,” said Turpin. “His example has been and will continue to be an inspiration to U of A students.”

Joseph Doucet, dean of the Alberta School of Business, first met the former premier while he was an executive at CIBC and would visit campus to share his expertise with business students.

“When he spoke to students he was very engaged, very open and generous with his time,” said Doucet.

Prentice urged business students at his alma mater to “exercise their leadership” and help Alberta meet the challenges wrought by a drastic drop in oil prices.

“Leadership, more than anything else, will determine our future and our success as a province,” he told them during a visit in 2015.

Prentice was heavily engaged in the energy and environment sectors, as well as trade issues. He described the proposed Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines and the Churchill Hydro projects as “nation building,” comparing them in importance to historic projects like the Canadian Pacific Railway in a 2012 interview for the U of A School of Business alumni magazine.

Aboriginal issues were also a priority for Prentice.

“At different times I heard him speak about Aboriginal questions in Canada and really appreciated the fact that he worked to move the needle in terms of Aboriginal involvement in discussions of projects that affected their communities,” said Doucet. “One thing that struck me when he became premier of Alberta was that he took the Aboriginal relations file on himself, signalling how important it was and how committed he was to it.”

Former U of A board chair Brian Heidecker, who knew Prentice for 40 years, said he was a dedicated minister of Indian affairs.

“He took on that file and gained their respect, and was able to make a lot of changes. When the federal government apologized for the residential schools, in the background, Jim was doing a lot of work.”

Prentice also served the U of A very well, Heidecker added.

“When Jim was a federal minister, he was one of the strongest champions of post-secondary education and research. The U of A received a lot of grants and research funding because of Jim’s dedicated support.”

That support included, among other things, playing a leading role in the development of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program, rolled out in 2008. The initiative aims to enhance Canada’s reputation as a global leader in research and innovation by providing some of the most generous funding in the world for Canadian universities to attract world-renowned researchers. To date, 27 researchers have been recruited with help from the program, three of whom are at the U of A.

Prentice credited his U of A education with much of his career success.

“Much of the opportunity I’ve had in life came from that,” he said in his 2013 convocation address, calling the U of A an “incredible school.”

Prentice is survived by his wife Karen and daughters Cassia, Christina and Kate.