James Simpson Palmer CM, QC, LLB
Jim Palmer learned a lesson early in life that profoundly shaped his life and his contributions to Alberta and Canada. Born into a prominent Prince Edward Island family with roots stretching back to Confederation, Jim was taught to take nothing for granted and to realize the advantages he enjoyed came with an obligation to better the world around him. That lesson was further engrained through the liberal arts education he received from McGill University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1948. He then followed a family tradition, graduating from Dalhousie University Law School in 1952 and becoming the fifth generation to pursue a legal career.
Jim moved to Alberta following an invitation from his McGill roommate, who lived in Calgary. The energy of the growing city and beauty of the Rocky Mountains captured Jim’s imagination and he settled in Calgary in 1952 with his new bride, Barbara. He practiced general law with Petrie and Petrie and Texaco Exploration before joining the firm of Burnet, Duckworth in 1955. He became a partner in the firm one year later. During his career with Burnet Duckworth Palmer, Jim established himself as a leader in business, tax and international law and has played an instrumental role in the development of Alberta’s oil and gas industry. His expertise and talent for seeing things from a global perspective have brought Jim international recognition in his field.
While working diligently in his legal practice, Jim has taken care to make time for community service. He has volunteered his talents in a number of sectors over the years, but perhaps in none as vigorously as post-secondary education. He firmly believes that “education is independence” and has dedicated considerable time and leadership to help young Canadians achieve that freedom. He currently sits on the Board of Governors of Dalhousie University and also served on the Board of Governors and as Chancellor of the University of Calgary from 1986 to 1990. From 1990 to 1993, Jim assumed duties as chair of the U of C’s Building the Vision fundraising campaign and helped to surpass the campaign’s $40 million goal.
Jim’s contributions to the U of C were recognized in 1995 with the James S. Palmer Lecture Series. In the inaugural lecture, speaker John Kenneth Galbraith covered a topic well suited to its namesake, discussing the nature of “The Good Society.” Jim’s own definition is simple. He believes that a good society offers its citizens access to education and affords those who can look after themselves with an opportunity to build a life and earn a living. Alongside those freedoms, he advocates the need for a caring society that provides a solid safety net for people in need. That conviction has led Jim to support a number of social organizations, including the Calgary Homeless Foundation and Habitat for Humanity. In 2002, he demonstrated the strong community leadership and personal commitment that have defined his life when he led his firm’s staff in volunteering at a Calgary Habitat for Humanity construction site.
Over the years, Jim has actively supported arts and culture in his community. He was president of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra from 1981 to 1983 and is a committed patron of numerous Calgary arts organizations. Other former duties include director of the Council for Business and the Arts in Canada, national director of the Fathers of Confederation Building Trust and director of CBC Television.
Jim is a fervent supporter of national unity and is committed to the democratic principles that built Canada. He is involved in political organizing and fundraising and, in 1979, ran as the Liberal candidate for the federal constituency of Calgary South. Jim is past provincial president of the Canadian Unity Council and former governor and chairman of the Canadian Tax Foundation.
Jim Palmer’s contributions to Alberta and Canada have been recognized with a number of honours. He became a Member of the Order of Canada in 1998 and has received Honourary Doctor of Laws degrees from the University of Calgary, Dalhousie University and the University of Prince Edward Island. He received the Weldon Award from Dalhousie Law School for unselfish public service and the Distinguished Service Award from the Law Society of Alberta and the Canadian Bar Association. In 2002, he was awarded the Commemorative Medal for the Golden Jubilee of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Despite his many achievements and obligations on corporate and charitable boards, Jim continues to cherish the daily routine of his law practice. Although he allows himself some time for golf and hiking in the Rocky Mountains, he shows no interest in retiring and prefers to draw energy from the unpredictable nature of a business where “every morning the phone rings and anything can happen.” In addition to his duties as Burnet Duckworth Palmer Chairman, he serves as a mentor to the firm’s junior lawyers. He encourages them to see that everyone is important and deserving of respect. He also charges them to pay attention to detail, work hard to find solutions and never forget their obligation to give back to the community. His students would be hard pressed to find a better teacher or role model than Jim Palmer.