Jane Bird can’t make the trains run on time–but the former Canada Line CEO knows how to get them built on schedule and on budget
She may have a reputation for tackling some of the most significant infrastructure projects in the province, but Jane Bird believes she’s an even greater heavy-metal fan than her peers actually realize.
Bird—a lawyer by training—is the former CEO of Canada Line Rapid Transit Inc., overseeing construction of the $2-billion line from downtown Vancouver to the airport (2001-09); she also led Columbia Power Corporation during expansion of the Waneta hydroelectric generating station near Trail (2010-13; it opened last year). As Bird explains over a bowl of pork ishiyaki at Hapa Izakaya near her Vancouver law offices, she still marvels at engineering feats.
“I love the intellectual rigour of law, but I absolutely love construction—right down to the dust,” says the Kitsilano resident, who comes by her love of engineering honestly: her husband, father, brother and uncle all wear the ring. “It’s the applied science of it: that you can build a span that crosses a river, for example. I’m still in awe.”
After graduating in political science from Queen’s (where she met husband David) and law from Dalhousie, Bird practised corporate and commercial law at the now-defunct Freeman and Company (1986-93) as well as Kornfeld LLP (1993-99). She took a leave of absence from Kornfeld in the late ’90s to negotiate on behalf of the City of Vancouver to extend the Millennium Line to VCC Clark—an experience that led to being asked by former premier Gordon Campbell to run the Canada Line in 2001.
Not without controversy (the disruption of the cut-and-cover construction, for example, hit some businesses hard—which she regrets, although, she adds, it was done to avoid the risk associated with tunnelling), the Canada Line is largely seen as a success. Today, as senior business advisor at Bennett Jones LLP, she is again helping the City with future decisions over replacing the Georgia/Dunsmuir viaducts as well as the future of Northeast False Creek.
Bird says she’s feeling upbeat about the current momentum for federal support for infrastructure and for public-private partnerships (notably, the Canada Line was North America’s first such collaboration in transit). The art of infrastructure, she explains, is anchored in good communication and an analytical approach, as well as ensuring all the right expertise is weighing in without ego and the decision-making is well structured. “You have to be forthright in order to move the ball down the field, while acknowledging your audience,” she adds.
After trains and turbines, Bird tackled tradition, too, working with historic buildings in the U.K. as director with the Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Development from August 2013 to February 2015. (Again, she had been suggested for the job by Campbell, then the Canadian high commissioner to the U.K.) Bird helped to sell Canada’s property on Grosvenor Square in London, renovate Canada House in Trafalgar Square and move the High Commission to the new space.
With a reputation for projects on budget and on time (the Canada Line opened three months ahead of schedule), Bird rejects the preconceived notion that government projects can’t be either. As the province ramps up for a flurry of possible projects—including Vancouver’s Broadway subway expansion and the George Massey Tunnel—she also extols the region’s professional expertise, and a banking and pension fund sector that have developed unique infrastructure knowledge.
She loves seeing the tangible “realness” at the end of her projects but admits to an element of sadness, too: “It’s like being on a team that wins the championship. Then you realize it’s all over, and the team disperses.”
THREE THINGS ABOUT... JANE BIRD
1. People have suggested Bird run for political office numerous times, but it doesn’t tickle her. “I have a pretty thin skin, and I hate raising money.”
2. While her career is defined by working in and on cities, the place she most hankers after is her off-the-grid cottage on Galiano Island. “It’s funny that for somebody who loves cities, my happiest time is on the island... It’s such a good balance to living in the city.”
3. Bird considers herself the “biggest loving non-dog owner”—prevented from getting a pet, she says, because she spends too much time on the road.