Jim Prentice: Being Canadian

Jim Prentice (LLB ’80) PC, QC, arrived in Halifax in 1977 as a “kid from Alberta with a commerce degree” who made ends meet working in the coal mines of the Crowsnest Pass during the summer months. Born in South Porcupine, near Timmins, Ontario, Prentice grew up in Alberta, where he now makes his home.

Prentice could have pursued law at any school, but he chose Dalhousie. “It was a really conscious decision to go [to Dal],” he told me in a recent conversation. “I’d been accepted into Harvard, but I wanted to go to a university with an important tradition in Canada…Dalhousie Law School was a great Canadian institution.” And from his earliest days at the law school, he recognized the familiar trio that makes us such a special place:  camaraderie, great teaching, and a national student body.

“Being Canadian” seems to be part of what makes Prentice tick. In talking to him on the phone to prepare this profile, I am sure that he underscored the importance and attraction of our national student body three or four times, as well as the pan-Canadian friends he made while at Dalhousie.

The world opened up for Prentice upon graduation. He gave time to private practice, where he specialized in physical property rights. He ran as a candidate for the Conservative Party and was elected as a Member of Parliament. He was appointed to cabinet and served the federal government as Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, Minister of Industry, and Minister of Environment. Following his time in public office, he took on the role of vice-chairman of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and then returned to public life as Premier of Alberta in 2014.

I agreed to give up my private life and go back into public service, which is not something I planned to do, but felt strongly that someone needed to do something.

That job came with its challenges. The province faced plummeting oil prices and the related implications for Alberta’s finances. The provincial government was beset with governance challenges and there was significant skepticism about public service. “I agreed to give up my private life and go back into public service, which is not something I planned to do, but felt strongly that someone needed to do something,” explained Prentice.

Prentice credits his legal training for much of his life’s successes and he is a proud lawyer. He told me, humbly, that he was a Dunn scholar who lost his scholarship: “[t]here was a big lesson in that.” He points also to the “softer” skills you learn in legal education: how to empathize with others, deal with people, cope with high volumes of material, think critically, and work hard. He also underscored the importance of a legal education to the development of one’s ethical framework, saying it permeates his life and is instrumental to life as a lawyer and life as a public official.

Jim Prentice ran for Progressive Conservative candidate in 1986 for Calgary Mountain View.

Jim Prentice ran for Progressive Conservative candidate in 1986 for Calgary Mountain View.

“Law school really helps to develop a sense of ethics and ethical reasoning. And frankly we need more lawyers in elected public life right now. There was a time when arguably there were too many lawyers, but that’s not the case now,” says Prentice.

Prentice’s recent role as Premier of Alberta was demanding. And yet when I contacted him to ask if he would be willing to have me prepare a profile on what he’s been up to for Hearsay, he called me back himself, leaving me a message with his cell phone number and introducing himself as “Jim.”

He ended the call with two reflections. First, he urged law students to consider a path in public service. He credited the Weldon Tradition with providing part of the foundation that has supported his long-standing commitment to the political arena. And, second, he promised a visit to the law school to talk to students. Knowing that he tries to get back to Halifax once a year, we look forward to seeing him in person soon.

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