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Death of former premier Jim Prentice resonates painfully throughout Alberta's small political community

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Jim Prentice

Its vast geography notwithstanding, by population Alberta is not that big a place, and political Alberta is little more than a small town, so the news yesterday that former premier Jim Prentice had perished in an airplane crash the night before in British Columbia resonated painfully.

Many people in the province's political community who did not share Prentice's conservative political convictions were nevertheless deeply shocked, in part because the lawyer, former federal cabinet minister and banking executive had so recently played such a pivotal role in the politics of this place.

Indeed, it seems like only yesterday Prentice strode onto Alberta's provincial political stage, an articulate colossus, apparently unbeatable, exquisitely tailored, and almost Kennedyesque in his good looks. It was May 15, 2014.

But even after losing the 2015 election to the NDP 10 days short of a year later and immediately abandoning the political scene, Prentice cut a memorable figure -- still fresh in political Alberta's collective mind, the topic of endless hindsight and speculation -- seemingly far younger than his 60 years.

Many of us have personal memories of Alberta's 16th premier because, whatever his core philosophy, which remains a bit of a cipher, he was justly known as an effective conciliator -- and no one can be good at conciliation without making personal contact with the people with whom one hopes to strike agreements.

For this reason, I believe that if Prentice's Progressive Conservative Party had won the May 5, 2015, general election, which is what most all of us expected going into that contest, he would have engaged in a social license strategy on resource development not dissimilar from that now being pursued by Premier Rachel Notley's NDP.

As a person with an instinct for conciliation, Prentice tended to treat everyone who came in contact with him -- petitioners, other politicians, influencers, community leaders, First Nations representatives, lobbyists, environmentalists, curious members of the public, journalists and even impertinent bloggers -- with his trademark cordial reserve and respect.

To those who didn't have the opportunity to meet Prentice, he seemed more remote than some other well-known Alberta politicians -- both Ralph Klein and Notley spring to mind -- and that may have influenced the way his short provincial political career unfolded. But the personal relationships he established with many people have vastly magnified the shock at his sudden death.

Notley spoke eloquently of this yesterday in a short tribute to her predecessor's memory, describing "the profound sorrow and sympathy I feel, and that I know all Albertans feel" -- reminiscent, I am sure, of the feelings she experienced on the death of her father in the crash of a small aircraft in northern Alberta in 1984. "There are no words adequate for moments like this, as my family knows very well."

"But there are words to remember Premier Prentice's contributions to Alberta," Notley continued. "He served our province in so many roles for so many years. He deeply loved Alberta. He worked tirelessly for all of us, in the true spirit of one who is committed to public service. I benefited from his advice, and the Government of Alberta is continuing to pursue many of his initiatives. All Albertans are the better for this."

But while Prentice's death is a tragedy for the province and a heartbreaking ordeal for his family -- which also lost Ken Gellatly, father-in-law of one of Prentice's daughters, in the crash of the small business jet -- its political impacts are not likely to be far reaching.

This is simply because Prentice cut himself off so decisively from Alberta politics and the party he had briefly led as soon as the PC election loss was apparent on election night. "My contribution is now at an end," he told supporters flatly upon conceding defeat that evening, stating that his decision was effective immediately. If he ever wavered from his determination to depart as quickly as possible and with such finality, it was never apparent.

So while the political results of that decision by Prentice continue to be felt throughout in Alberta -- particularly in the leadership race now underway in his Progressive Conservative Party and the internal party debate over how and when, and even whether, the two parties of the right should be united -- the tragedy of his death is not likely to much change the way that discussion unfolds.

Prentice's family issued a short statement through the Government of Alberta saying that "to lose two family members at once is unbelievably painful and we are certain you will appreciate and respect our wishes for privacy at this time and the coming weeks."

Prentice is survived by his wife, Karen, three daughters, and two grandchildren.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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