Talking with David Emerson about his career path and the worst decision he ever made.
I came out of Grande Prairie. I was a hockey player, a street kid. I wanted to be a forester. My brother convinced me to go into pre-dentistry and I hated it. I thought economics sounded like it might have some relevance to getting a job, so I went into economics. Economic Council of Canada, 1972 Once you’ve been in economics for six or seven years, you can’t avoid becoming a public policy wonk. Government of British Columbia, 1975 I was once asked if I wanted to become deputy minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and I said no. Where would you go after you became deputy minister of Intergovernmental Affairs? B.C. Deputy Minister of Finance, 1984 I was always a cynic about politicians. Here we were trying to make briefing notes so simple because elected people tended not to have a technical background. It was my belief in those days that I could satisfy my intellectual curiosity and get things done more effectively as a public servant. Today I believe you need to understand how public servants think. They will load you down with paper to the point where most people barely have time to do the most superficial reading. You can become, in effect, a tool of the public service. I’ve found my economics background has been absolutely vital. President & CEO, Western and Pacific Bank of Canada, 1986 I thought my first job in business was going to be a failure. The accountants were all over me. There were discussions about whether the bank should be put in receivership. The phone stopped ringing. President & CEO, Canfor, 1998 We went through that whole period where the forest products industry in Canada was an anti-brand characterized by the environmentalists and even the government as a sunset industry and as an environmental spoiler. We completely transformed that company. Liberal Candidate, Vancouver-Kingsway, 2004 I got a phone call from the Prime Minister. Would I consider running? After reflections with the family over Christmas, we just decided (with the travel and disruption to our family life) it would be too difficult. I said no. I got a call back within 30 minutes. The Prime Minister. He urged me to reconsider. We had some discussion about what kind of role I would like to play. Minister of Industry, 2004 [The Asian trip] was the first time I was involved in international diplomacy. It was striking how candid the exchanges were. China is absolutely focused on developing strategic relationships to ensure supply of critical natural resources. That created leverage that Canada hasn’t had in quite a while. When we hit the Approved Tourism Destination Status issue, Premier Wen smiled nicely and said, “Perhaps at some point we’ll consider it.” The Prime Minister kept coming back and coming back until finally Premier Wen said, “All right, we will review the situation favourably.” How does one decide to be Prime Minister? You have to want to forgo your complete private being and you’ve got to be fluent in French. The worst decision you’ve ever made? Having ample opportunity through tax payer expense to learn French and then giving a higher priority to some arcane economic report. Life Ultimately my objective has been – and I’ve done it financially – to get to the point in life where I can tell anybody to stuff it.