Jim Prentice, former Alberta premier, was key figure in conservative movement

Alberta premier Jim Prentice dead at 60

Jim Prentice was a leading figure in Canada's Conservative movement.

EDMONTON — Jim Prentice came of age “under the bins” of the Crowsnest Pass coal mines to emerge as Alberta’s 16th premier and one of the seminal figures of the modern-day conservative movement in Canada.

Prentice, 60, was confirmed Friday as one of four victims of a plane crash outside Kelowna, B.C.

He had been out of politics for more than a year.

He quit public life in May 2015 when his Alberta Progressive Conservative government lost to Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP, ending more than four decades of Tory rule in the province.

Prior to that, Prentice was a cabinet member and key lieutenant under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, serving in the Indian and northern affairs, industry, and environment portfolios.

He spent almost all of his adult life in the political arena — in the back rooms and on the front lines.

Born on July 20, 1956, in South Porcupine, Ont., Prentice spent summers working in coal mines, breaking rocks in the heat and dust, as he earned a law degree.

“I always said I got my education there,” Prentice said in a 2014 interview.

“I learned teamwork, I learned respect for other people. I learned the fact that the smartest guy in the room is often not the guy you think is the smartest guy.

“Everybody’s got something to contribute and everybody’s got to be part of the solution.”

Five decades before that, Prentice only wanted to play hockey.

His dad, Eric, was a gold miner and former pro hockey player, a 17-year-old whiz-kid winger and the youngest player ever signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was a career minor leaguer, save for five games with Toronto in 1943.

As the gold mine business dwindled, Eric picked up his family in 1969 and moved to the coal mines in Alberta’s Rockies.

Hockey-wise, Prentice became a top-flight winger in his own right, but his promising junior career ended with a devastating knee-on-knee hit.

“I got creamed coming out from behind the net,” Prentice once said. “That was it.”

From then on, he focused on university, graduating with a law degree and going to work in Alberta as lawyer, mainly with land and property rights, as well as an entrepreneur.

In the background there was politics.

Always politics.

From age 20, Prentice worked for the federal and provincial Conservative parties taking a page, he said, from his parents’ involvement in their community.

Save for one failed bid for elected office provincially in 1986, he stayed in backrooms as an organizer and bean counter. He made an agreement with his wife Karen, he said, not to get into the all-consuming elected life until their kids were older.

When he did run again in 2002, the federal conservative movement was a mess, fractured between the PCs and the Canadian Alliance.

Prentice urged reunification and, in 2002, stepped aside as the PC candidate in Calgary Southwest so that then-Alliance leader Stephen Harper could run unopposed to represent the centre-right.

In 2004, at age 47, he finally grabbed the brass ring, winning a Calgary riding for the newly merged Conservative party.

In 2006, Harper won a minority government and put Prentice in cabinet. Over the following years, he was given high marks for his work in diverse portfolios.

But his defining moment, he said, came earlier, when the Conservatives were still the Opposition in 2005. Prentice decided to vote for a controversial Liberal bill endorsing same-sex marriage.

He said the pressure to vote no against it was incredible.

“(But) I believe in the rights of individuals, including the rights of communities of faith,” he said. “There’s a duty to balance and protect the rights of everyone.”

That humanist rationale, however, didn’t cut much ice in his riding of Calgary Centre-North.

There were angry letters to the editor. Staff in his riding office quit. People told him his political career was finished. One angry Calgarian passed him in a pickup truck, pulled over and threatened clean his clock on the spot.

They set fire to the veranda of his home.

In the church where he was married and his children were baptized, Prentice arrived with his wife to find that day’s sermon was a warning about him.

In November 2010, he announced he would be leaving federal politics and taking on a post as a senior executive with CIBC.

Four years later, he returned to the arena in Alberta, winning the leadership race for the provincial PCs and becoming premier.

Prentice promised to return Alberta to fiscal probity on a foundation of business principles for a government still reeling from spending scandals of former premier Alison Redford.

He called the election a year early but, in 2015, ran into a buzz saw electorate ready for a change. The Tories won a handful of seats and were reduced to third-party status.

Prentice won his seat in Calgary-Foothills but told supporters, even as the results poured in on election night, that he was finished with public life.

“As leader of the party, I accept responsibility for tonight’s outcome. I also accept responsibility for the decisions that led up to this evening,” he said.

“It is time for me to dedicate my time to other responsibilities I have as a husband, and as a father and a grandfather.”

In the year and half that followed, he rarely spoke about his time leading Alberta.

Earlier this year, he joined a think tank in Washington, D.C, the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center, as a visiting fellow.

He said he was also writing a book on energy and environmental issues.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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