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Jim Prentice: A decent man, seemingly ill-suited to harsh world of politics

Jim Prentice, described as a ‘man of his word,’ vanished from politics after losing Alberta’s election in 2015.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Tributes from people of all political stripes flooded social media after they learned of Jim Prentice's death. And in their acknowledgments, a consensus emerged: Jim Prentice, who died at the age of 60, was intelligent and hard-working, someone capable of handling the most intractable of government files. But above all, he was decent and honourable, a gentleman whose personality was, seemingly, ill-suited to the often harsh, craven world of politics.

"He was someone who loved Alberta, loved the Prairies, loved the mountains, just loved the physical beauty of the entire country," former Alberta premier Alison Redford told me on Friday. "For me, those feelings shaped his view around the environment, around First Nations, around community. It really tied in everything he cared about in his life."

B.C. Premier Christy Clark said it was rare to meet people of his character in any walk of life.

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"He was a man of his word, would keep confidences, and his handshake was worth more than any written agreement," she said.

There were the six years he spent in Ottawa as an MP for the riding of Calgary Centre-North, a period in which he also served in the cabinet of prime minister Stephen Harper. Mr. Prentice held a range of portfolios, including industry, the environment and Indian Affairs – which may be the one in which he did the most personally gratifying and important work.

When Mr. Prentice later became Alberta premier, he decided to add aboriginal relations to his list of responsibilities, such was the faith he had in the relationships he had forged with many First Nations in the province during his time in Ottawa. Each year at the Calgary Stampede, he would often be seen proudly wearing a buckskin jacket that was given to him as a gift by an Alberta First Nation community.

When Mr. Prentice left federal politics in 2010 for the corporate boardrooms and big money of downtown Toronto, it was always assumed that Ottawa had not seen the last of him; that he would be a front-runner for Mr. Harper's job whenever he stepped down. But before that day arrived, Mr. Prentice was lured back to his home province out of sense of political duty. In 2014, he was persuaded to seek the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party after the resignation of Ms. Redford.

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Mr. Prentice was effectively handed the Tory throne, his rivals in the leadership contest mere props. But he took over the job as Alberta's 16th premier in the fall of 2014, just as world oil prices were cratering; the impact on the provincial economy would be devastating.

He would make two mistakes that unquestionably hastened his party's demise: firstly, he helped broker a mass floor crossing by Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and eight of her colleagues that infuriated long-time Tory members and a public galled by the cynical nature of the move; then he called an early election in an attempt to take advantage of a New Democratic Party challenger he incorrectly guessed would not be ready. Voters were not amused that they were going to the polls a year earlier than necessary.

They made the Tories pay – ending their 44 years in power with a humiliating defeat.

Mr. Prentice vanished from sight after that, not interested in offering any postmortem on his nine-month stint as premier. Meantime, later that year, he would have to deal with the tragic death of Tory MLA Manmeet Bhullar, who was killed on an Alberta highway when he got out of his car to help another motorist. Mr. Prentice was Mr. Bhullar's close friend and mentor. He was said to have been crushed by the loss.

My favourite personal memory of Mr. Prentice remains a moment on his campaign bus in the spring of 2015. He and his wife, Karen, were playing with their daughter's dog, Julio. Mr. Prentice couldn't stop smiling at the little creature, couldn't stop rubbing its ears. He howled when the dog ran hurriedly up and down the aisle. It was the happiest I had seen the premier in weeks. He caught me marvelling at the scene.

"Isn't he wonderful?" he said to me. "Doesn't have a care in the world. Just filled with love, just filled with love."

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Jim Prentice was loved by many of those around him, leading with his wife and three daughters. He will be missed by many more.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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