Alberta's new minister of justice well suited to role, say peers

As Doug Schweitzer finished university and began his legal career, he, like other young graduates, vied for articling positions at Canada’s top law firms.

Alberta's new minister of justice well suited to role, say peers
Doug Schweitzer is the new minister of justice and solicitor general in Alberta.

As Doug Schweitzer finished university and began his legal career, he, like other young graduates, vied for articling positions at Canada’s top law firms. Turns out Schweitzer, recently sworn in as minister of justice and solicitor general in Alberta’s new United Conservative Party government, had an arm up on the competition back then.

Now 40, Schweitzer earned his law degree from the University of Manitoba in 2006. As he sought an articling position, the Calgary office of Bennett Jones LLP, an international firm with 400 lawyers and offices in four countries, was scouting new recruits. Schweitzer, called to the Alberta bar in 2007, caught their attention.

For the lanky lawyer, a good pitching arm proved nearly as valuable an asset to his budding restructuring and insolvency practice as his legal smarts.

When hiring articling lawyers, says Blair Yorke-Slader, vice chairman of Bennett Jones, which snapped Schweitzer up back then, “we are obviously looking for people who are smart. “But,” he adds, “if you’re just an academic, if you can’t look a client in the eye, that’s not really ideal.” Bennett Jones’s recruiting team was looking for candidates with communications skills and a work-life balance.

Schweitzer had those qualities. From 1999 to 2001, before studying law, he’d gone to play college baseball and get a general arts degree at Cerro Coso Community College, a small school in Ridgecrest, a city of 27,000 people, in California’s Mojave Desert. “The fact Doug had an athletic background was an indication of balance,” says Yorke-Slader. “He struck that wonderful balance between professionalism and the kind of guy you would want to go for a beer with.”

In college, Schweitzer, born in Kelowna, B.C., had a cannon for an arm. “I could throw hard, but [I] didn’t have the greatest control in the world,” he told Canadian Lawyer. “I’d walk a guy, hit a guy, strike a guy out.” Beyond his athletic qualities and legal acumen, something else made Schweitzer memorable, according to Yorke-Slader. “He has then what he has now, which is remarkable authenticity. He looks you in the eye and talks to you and you know you’re getting the straight goods.”

 It’s a theme that emerged from several lawyers who worked with Schweitzer before he entered politics in 2017. That summer, Schweitzer ran and lost against Jason Kenney for the UCP leadership. But, as the UCP candidate for Calgary-Elbow in Alberta’s provincial election on April 16, Schweitzer won his seat and the UCP won a majority, sweeping the NDP out of power. He was sworn in as minister of justice and solicitor general on April 30.

Before entering politics, Schweitzer garnered plenty of goodwill in Calgary’s corporate law community in just more than a decade: He was known as an amiable, fair and bright lawyer. But as he winds up to helm Alberta’s judicial system, a question hangs over him: Can he deliver the “straight goods” to Albertans as justice minister while serious allegations of voter fraud during the UCP’s own leadership campaign dog his party and his boss, Premier Jason Kenney?

When Schweitzer ran for the UCP leadership, just hours after party members began casting their ballots, he himself requested the party suspend the vote, voicing concerns that ineligible non-party members might have infiltrated security walls to cast online votes for certain candidates. Last March, the RCMP also took over an investigation by Alberta’s election commissioner into irregular campaign contributions used to support a so-called “kamikaze” campaign allegedly run by Kenney’s team. In evidence uncovered by the CBC, the scheme involved members of Kenney’s team allegedly funding and co-ordinating an essentially fake leadership run by Jeff Callaway. It was designed to draw off votes from Kenney’s main contender for the UCP leadership, Brian Jean.

That’s just one of many contentious matters — ranging from addressing rising rural crime to fighting the federal carbon tax — that Schweitzer must quickly wrap his knuckles around. But David Mann, national leader of Dentons’ restructuring, insolvency and bankruptcy group and Schweitzer’s last corporate law boss in Calgary, isn’t worried how he’ll fare. “Doug is obviously very bright, very hard working and very level headed. Being an insolvency lawyer, you often find yourself in the centre of crisis with limited time and resources. I think he has the basic building blocks to do really well in this kind of a role.”

Schweitzer, who favours a Corona with a lime wedge when having a beer with friends or colleagues, decided to return to Canada to study law after his big-league dreams were dashed by a shoulder injury. “Law had always interested me as a way to help people and as a way to understand society, government and business.”

When starting law school, Schweitzer began to volunteer in the election campaigns of various conservative politicians. He had a knack for getting conservative-leaning lawyers into power. In 2006,  he helped run the ultimately successful campaign of Hugh McFayden (who also studied law at the U of M) for leadership of the Manitoba Conservative Party. Scoring a win for yet another lawyer, he ran Jim Prentice’s 2014 campaign to lead the Progressive Conservatives in Alberta, leading to Prentice’s eight-month stint as premier. “I’ve run over a dozen political campaigns behind the scenes as a volunteer in different capacities,” Schweitzer says.

If Chris Warren didn’t exactly plant a seed in Schweitzer’s mind to finally enter politics as a candidate rather than a volunteer, he certainly watered it. Back in 2014, Warren, a lawyer in Red Deer, Alta., who had long been involved in conservative politics, met Schweitzer when both served on an Alberta PC party finance committee. Two years later, in May 2016, Warren rang Schweitzer out of the blue and arranged a breakfast meeting in Calgary to nudge Schweitzer into running as a conservative in Alberta’s next provincial election.

 “Doug just struck me as someone who was very articulate [and] measured and considered issues from a number of different perspectives,” says Warren, who wanted more young people involved in Alberta politics. “I remember that breakfast distinctly,” says Schweitzer, who has two young daughters with his wife Jennifer, a federal prosecutor. Warren says he “knew I was passionate about getting people back to work.”

That, it’s clear, is a prime motivator in Schweitzer’s goals as Alberta’s justice minister, a position not usually associated with economic development. Increasing employment and restoring Alberta’s reputation as a place to do business, he says, will be a big part of his ministry’s “fight-back strategy.” That includes joining Saskatchewan and Ontario in the legal fight against the federal carbon tax and, during the UCP’s first day in power, enacting Bill 12, the “turn-off-the-taps” legislation that could give Alberta the power to reduce the flow of oil and gas to British Columbia in retaliation for B.C. blocking Alberta’s plans to build pipelines to the west coast.

As a bankruptcy and restructuring lawyer, Schweitzer dealt with numerous Albertans who had lost their jobs and businesses since oil prices tanked in 2014 and who were trying to salvage what they could of their finances. But his deep concern about Alberta’s economy and job prospects goes back further than that.

As a young boy, he and his older brother and sister watched his parents suffer through the recession in the early ’80s. His mother had been a teacher, but she was raising the children when his entrepreneurial father, Ed, lost his small homebuilding business in Kelowna, B.C. during that downturn. The family bounced around for years in Alberta and B.C. as his parents struggled to find work. Back then, the Schweitzers sometimes lived temporarily in basements offered by friends. When he was eight or nine, Schweitzer, along with his siblings, had paper routes. He remembers that, sometimes, it was the kids who bought the family groceries with what little money they earned.

But, he says, his parents — he considers them his personal heroes — “were an amazing example of a strong couple working together to solve their situation. . . . Seeing them get through that and their resilience and how hard this was for them, it really motivates me now.”

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