October 19th, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 41
Jim Prentice - Remembering a friend
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Ezra Black Photo
Jim Prentice, former premier of Alberta, was one of four people killed in a plane crash outside Kelowna B.C. last week.
It is strange to turn on the television and see the profile of your friend on the screen with the years of his life, 1956-2016, in bold letters. It doesn’t seem right. He had so much still to do with his life. And he and I are the same age. The next twenty years were supposed to be the time when we get to reap the benefits of having lived a decent life. A good life. It isn’t fair. It is simply not time for Jim Prentice to leave us.

I call him friend although we haven’t spoken for many years. I know little of his recent political life other than what I saw on the news. But it was politics that brought us together, back when the world was young, when we were both 18. His family had moved to the Crowsnest Pass and I had just finished high school. It was summer. The summer you are 18 is always one you remember, that glorious time between the slim responsibilities of a child and the infinite possibilities of an adult. We were a high-achieving graduating class who all had plans to leave the Crowsnest Pass in the fall, so we spent each day of that summer stretching out our long goodbye.

The first time I met Jim a group of friends were piled into a vehicle on the way to some party at Knowell’s Flats, or Crowsnest Lake or up the Kananaskis. We were happy and silly and loud. Jim Prentice was standing with a group of older men waiting for the mine bus. He was on night shift. I didn’t know him, but the driver of our car had met him and he pulled over to see if he could talk him into joining us. It was that kind of summer, when you wanted everyone to be as free as you were.

Jim looked so young standing among that group of men. His eyes were not as rimmed with coal, his hands not as callused and hard. But, and this is strange to remember, he did not look out of place. I would come to realize over many years that Jim never looked out of place, no matter where he was. He might be younger, or older, a different ethnicity, a different sex, but he had a way of removing the edges that keep us separate. A way of blending in without being anything less than what he was. It was one of the gifts he had. And standing on that corner, with men who were many years older and experienced, he looked young, but not apart.
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As my friends teased and cajoled, trying to convince him to “blow a shift” and join us, I remember being impressed with his poise, the intelligence in his eyes, his willingness to be teased but his determination that nothing that was said would change his mind. He had committed to put in his shift and he would. We sped off finally, honking our goodbyes, everyone eager to enjoy the evening. But I could not stop thinking about him.

I don’t remember the second time we met or exactly how we came to be friends. I suppose it was gradual, perhaps sitting near each other somewhere and beginning the first of our many heated discussions about politics. Like Jim, I was enrolled at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He was going to be a lawyer; I majored in Political Science and wanted to be a journalist. I was staunchly Liberal, he was passionately Progressive Conservative.

He is the best person I’ve ever debated issues with. He was a great listener, articulate, always fought fair and really, really thought about this country and how to make it better. He assumed he would have a part in making it better. That was one of the things that most intrigued me about him – he knew, deep down in his bone marrow, that he was going to be part of this country’s political framework. No one I knew at 18 or 19 had that kind of certitude.

He was involved with the Young Conservatives and through them was invited to go to Ottawa for the 1976 Conservative Leadership Convention to support Joe Clark. He made me an offer. He knew how fascinated I was with everything political – he would get me access to behind the scene discussions, parties and the candidate debates if I would translate the French newspapers for his group from Alberta. How could I turn down a deal like that? My parents scraped together the money and I flew to Ottawa, checked into the YWCA and prepared to have an experience of a lifetime.
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Many of you may not remember the 1976 Leadership Convention but I will never forget it. It was a contest between Joe Clark – who no one really thought would win, Brian Mulroney, Claude Wagner and Flora Macdonald. Jim kept his word. I attended all the delegate functions, eating lobster with Flora, sirloin steak with Brian and hamburgers and hot dogs with Joe. There were fiddlers, string quartets and country hoedowns. The backroom negotiations were frantic, passionate and Jim was in his element.

No one paid attention to Joe Clark at first, most of the attention was on Brian Mulroney and Claude Wagner, both lawyers from Quebec. Flora Macdonald was a Maritimer and the most popular candidate, but Canadian conservatives were not ready for a female leader. The Alberta Young Conservatives were relentless in their work for Joe Clark and eventually, surprising everyone, he won. He was 36 years old. I’ve often thought, although never proved, that when Joe Clark spoke about integrity in government, he may have been speaking the words that Jim Prentice wrote for him.

Many people have commented on Jim Prentice’s integrity, his fairness, his belief that a solution for any problem could always be found. Those were all attributes I saw in him, time and time again. But there are others that I don’t hear talked about as often - his sense of humour and his curiosity.

He often came across as quite serious, particularly because he was often the youngest person in any political gathering and I think he believed he needed to be seen as earnest and sincere. But he could make me laugh, sometimes just by lifting one eyebrow. I would often watch his interviews on television and if you were looking for it, you could always see the twinkle in his eyes. He genuinely enjoyed being alive and always saw the humorous side of the political world he inhabited.
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He was also extremely curious. About people’s motivations, backroom political manoeuvres - about human behaviour in all its permutations. I remember sharing a bottle of wine with Jim at Crowsnest Lake, just after I had became engaged. He wanted to be certain that I was marrying for the right reasons. He knew I wanted a career and, I think, was afraid that I would abandon my plans. With anyone else, even a good friend, I might have been defensive. But you couldn’t be with Jim, you knew he had your best interests at heart – and he wasn’t being nosy, he was simply and incredibly curious.

When he met his future wife Karen he brought her to Sparwood to meet me and my husband. He was so excited and as a couple they seemed perfectly matched. He was thrilled to become a father and I remember thinking how any child would be fortunate to have such a good and thoughtful man as their parent.

Time passed and as so often happens we saw less and less of each other, each busy with our careers and family life. Through his involvement with The Pass Promoter he saw more of my mother, who was the publisher, and I know she deeply appreciated his guidance and friendship.

I can’t imagine how devastated his family must be. His sisters who adored him, supporting him at every milestone in his career. His wife and children, sons-in-law and grandchildren – they must all feel as if nothing in their world will ever be the same again without Jim in it. It is difficult to know what those of us on the fringes of that world can do or say to lessen their pain.

I regret that I did not do more to stay in touch with Jim. I suppose I felt that there was always time to reconnect, sometime later when we were both not so busy. When we would be able to sit back and remember and laugh and argue and solve all the world’s problems. But there is no guarantee that you will ever have that time with those people who truly make you feel alive.

I feel fortunate that I knew Jim Prentice. He made me laugh, made me think, made me optimistic about this country’s future. He was always an example to me of what a good man in politics could be. I will miss him. And even if others may not know it, Canada will miss him, too.
There was so much more we needed him to do.
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October 19th ~ Vol. 85 No. 41
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