He built a great law firm, mentored a generation of business leaders, and is still leaving his mark on Calgary philanthropy, but legal lion Jim Palmer has one big regret – he could never persuade Albertans to vote Liberal. Now, at 83, the transplanted Maritimer is throttling back his hours at Burnet Duckworth & Palmer LLP, while watching a new economic and political age dawn in his hometown of the past 60 years. This bow-tied warrior, slowed by physical ailments but still engaged in law and public policy, looks back – and ahead.
How did you end up in Calgary?
I came here in 1952. After Dalhousie Law School, I was articling at home in Prince Edward Island and thinking of going to Toronto to look around. I got a call from a friend who was heading out to Calgary to get married and asked if I would drive with her. I came out to visit a university roommate and never went back.
Weren't you leaving a distinguished family in the East?
My great-grandfather, Edward Palmer, was a Father of Confederation in PEI. He voted against it, but he accepted all the accolades. And he's in the picture [Robert Harris's group painting of the 1864 Confederation leaders] But you could feel the excitement in Calgary in 1952. Nobody gave a damn about who you were – it was about what you were.
It was different coming from PEI, which, in those days, like Ireland, was divided into Catholics and Protestants – except we didn't shoot each other. There was none of that in Calgary. And Charlottetown had 30 lawyers and 12,000 people, but no industry – and you had to be with the party in power if you wanted to do well.
Did you miss the East?
For the first couple of years. Every time I went over a hill, I looked for the water, and there wasn't any. At first, I articled for a firm that I didn't like very much. If I'd been doing a little better in Calgary, I would probably have gone back to PEI, but I didn't want to go back with my tail between my legs.
I went over to an oil company, Texaco, for nine months just to park. I had nothing to do, so I was exhausted each night. You listened for the squeak of the coffee cart at 10 and 3. A friend phoned to say there was an opening at Burnet Duckworth. I was told that Frank Burnet, at 65, had the finest legal mind in Western Canada, so I beetled over pretty fast and he became a great mentor, a wonderful guy.
You still have a summer home on PEI. Are you a Westerner or an Easterner?
Westerner. It's the mountains. I did a lot of backpacking and hiking and I skied until three years ago. My wife Barbara, who is a better skier, said, 'I'm not picking you up any more.'
But how has it been navigating the ups and downs of the Alberta economy?
We've had some tough times. We were the first ones to let people go in the 1980s, and we learned our lesson: Don't be the first. The firm has done well over all, because we've been here for the right times, as well.
What was the turning point for you?
When I was with Texaco, I met a chap named Angus Mackenzie who was selling something that told you what was under the ground. I never did understand the oil industry underneath the ground, but he used to come in and we would chat. When I left Texaco, I ran into him on the street, and he said, 'Hell, I don't think we have a lawyer.' It was a big turning point because he spent the rest of his life going around the world getting oil concessions and I went with him.
But I actually enjoyed practising law. When I was travelling, I would see a lot of the expats and it is a different life for them, and I liked the life here in Calgary.
Weren't you tempted to merge your firm with another player?
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?
I'm trying to decide about that book – I guess I have to read it, because it's Peter. But it makes me mad; it shouldn't have happened. The group that was advising Pierre Trudeau found they could win by just looking after Ontario and the East, and forgot about the West. And [that attitude]continued and got worse. Does it all mean the death of Liberal Canada? No, no. But we've got to get younger people. I think there is still time for the party.
Is political life different now in the West?
In PEI, politics was always such a huge thing, but here in Alberta, it did not mean as much. There was always this attitude that: 'We just keep earning the money and sending it east.' But the new [Calgary]Mayor, Naheed Nenshi, has signalled a change [in political engagement] I watched the CBC National one night after his election and someone said Calgary has always been a white, Anglo-Saxon place. But it hasn't been that way for 20 years. People get this fixed idea of a place.
And besides, the culture is so good here – we have a very good symphony, we have opera, and a lot of theatre. Cold at night, though.
Chairman, Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP, Calgary
Law degree, Dalhousie University, Halifax
Bachelor of arts, McGill, Montreal
Associate, Petrie & Petrie, Calgary, 1953-54
Solicitor for Texaco Exploration, 1954-55
Joined Burnet, Duckworth as associate, 1955-56
Partner, 1956 to present
Chairman, 1990 to present
Chancellor of the University of Calgary, 1986-90
Former president and director, Calgary Philharmonic Society
Major backer of new School of Public Policy, U of C
Established James and Barbara Palmer Chair in law and public policy, 2004