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UPDATE: Penner resigns to join law firm

MLA Barry Penner (left) is seen here on election night, May 12, 2009. - JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS FILE
MLA Barry Penner (left) is seen here on election night, May 12, 2009.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS FILE

Chilliwack-Hope MLA Barry Penner is resigning his seat in the B.C. legislature to take a position with a Vancouver law firm.

In his goodbye speech from Victoria on Thursday, Penner was effusive with gratitude.

"It has been a tremendous honour to serve the people of my hometown and beyond for more than 15 years in elected office and to receive their votes of confidence in four successive election campaigns," he said.

Penner resigned from cabinet in August as B.C. attorney general, saying he would not seek re-election as MLA.

He was the youngest MLA to be elected when he was first ran in 1996, and went on to hold the Environment portfolio, as well as being picked as the first Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.

Asked what he'd miss most, Penner told The Chilliwack Progress this week: "There are many things I'll miss. Working with so many different people on different issues, it's been all-encompassing and mentally stimulating.

"It's particularly rewarding when you're able to resolve issues for people."

In terms of accomplishments, Penner listed the cable-wire barrier on Highway 1 and the new courthouse which opened in 2001 in downtown Chilliwack.

"Chilliwack has led the way with the cable barrier on the highway," he said. "Some may think it's a small thing, but it has saved lives and that is something I'm proud about."

The other major thing was the statue for Piper Richardson and the repatriation of his lost bagpipes back to B.C., which he worked on with MLA John Les. The pipes are now on display in the rotunda of the legislature in Victoria.

"Richardson died trying to find his pipes," he said. "So it's very significant that we were able to repatriate them and have them on display where many can see them, and the model of the bronze statue."

He also pointed to the construction of the first roundabout on a provincial highway on Highway 9, which has been slowing down traffic and possibly saving lives ever since.

The construction of G.W. Graham middle-secondary was noted as a milestone for B.C. as the first design-build school project ever attempted, with geothermal heating.

"It happened right here on our watch," he said.

But Penner also said, "however, to everything there is a season, and for me the season of serving in elected office is drawing to a close."

He is joining a prestigious Vancouver law firm early in 2012, on the heels of his political career.

"It is a challenging calling and can and should be a noble profession in my view, but I've never thought of it as a lifetime career for me. Therefore, I have informed the Premier that after checking with the Conflict of Interest Commissioner, I have today accepted an exciting position as senior counsel with the well known law firm of Davis LLP."

Penner had made the original decision not to run at the end of the summer, and stepped down as B.C. Attorney General at the time.

"Those decisions that were made in August were not easy, but I believe they were right for my family and myself."

B.C. Opposition leader Adrian Dix found out about the resignation Wednesday when Penner stood up to announce it in the legislature.

He's known the local MLA for 15 years, and said his most significant political role was as Minister of the Environment.

"We frequently disagreed, but he was a hard-working and dedicated guy," he said. "I'm sorry to see him go."

Even when they took opposing points of view, "we still had good, respectable debates."

"I also think he had a way of making fun of himself, around things like his cat or the effort to save the Vancouver Island marmot, which was fun," Dix said.

The B.C. NDP recently announced a new candidate for Port Moody-Coquitlam.

"Clearly now we will be looking at another by-election in Chilliwack-Hope," he said. "We will work hard to find and run a very strong candidate."

The Chilliwack portion of the riding has long been represented by the B.C. Liberals, but the Hope side of the riding has a history of NDP representation, Dix said.

Gwen O'Mahony who ran under the NDP banner in the last election got 34 per cent of the vote in Chilliwack-Hope.

"We're going to work very hard to do better this time," said Dix.

Penner had been the longest serving B.C. Environment Minister and fought a successful battle against SE2, and for the installation of B.C.’s first cable wire barrier on Highway 1. In Chilliwack he waged an “epic” battle for Chilliwack’s new courthouse building.

Official Statement made by MLA Barry Penner in the legislature Thursday:

In August I announced my decision not to seek election for a fifth time to the B.C. Legislature. At that time, as you know, I also stepped down from my role as Attorney General. Sorry, Shirley, but you're doing an admirable job of many competing duties.

Those decisions that were made in August were not easy, but I believe they were right for my family and myself. I am still of that view. It has been a tremendous honour to serve the people of my hometown and beyond for more than 15 years in elected office and to receive their votes of confidence in four successive election campaigns.

As I hear myself say that, it's hard to believe that so much time has gone by, until I pause to reflect on some of the things that have changed in the world since then. For example, when I was first elected in 1996, Jean Chretien was still the Prime Minister of Canada, Bill Clinton was still serving his first term as U.S. President, and the trade centre towers were still standing, and I didn't have an email address, much less a BlackBerry or two BlackBerrys, and I had never heard of an iPod or an iPad and Facebook had not been invented yet.

There have been many changes on a personal level as well. As you can see, my hair has gotten just a bit grayer. In the last number of years, like many other British Columbians, I have confronted cancer. But on a happier note, I met my wife Daris. We fell in love and got married, and this year we've had a beautiful baby daughter together, Fintry. At the risk of unparalleled understatement, she is an absolute joy. We love her immensely. But I digress.

I've also had the opportunity and privilege to serve as a cabinet minister in the great province of British Columbia. First, as Minister of Environment, then as Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation and more recently as the province's top law office, the Attorney General.

Most importantly, however, I've had a chance to be the MLA for an incredible part of this great province, the eastern Fraser Valley, working for people on individual issues and challenges that they've had with various government agencies and trying hard to find solutions.

However, to everything there is a season, and for me the season of serving in elected office is drawing to a close. It is a challenging calling and can and should be a noble profession in my view, but I've never thought of it as a lifetime career for me. Therefore, I have informed the Premier that after checking with the Conflict of Interest Commissioner, I have today accepted an exciting position as senior counsel with the well known law firm of Davis LLP.

This firm was founded in British Columbia in 1892, and has since grown to have a national and international presence. It's the same law firm that the late Allen Williams, QC, another former provincial Attorney General, went to when he left politics. It is my intention to formally resign my seat in the Legislature early in the new year, which is when I will take up my duties with Davis LLP.

It's difficult to say goodbye, so I'll just say so long, but in doing so, I want to thank both former Premier Gordon Campbell and the Premier today for being willing to lead the B.C. Liberal party and our province through tough times and good times and for giving me an opportunity to serve as a member of cabinet.

I want to thank all of my colleagues for putting up with me. Friendships really do grow strong over the years, and I want to thank all of the marvelous staff in the B.C. Liberal caucus and the various ministries, Attorney General, Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, because their professionalism helps all of us here do our best for all British Columbians, the people that we are serving.

It's been an incredible journey for someone who grew up in the eastern Fraser Valley. I recall walking into this building for the first time to be interviewed for a possible position as a legislative intern in 1988. The interview was conducted in the Oak Room, and I got the job which started in January 1989. I soon came to love the place, and there are many dedicated and wonderful people who work here, as we all know.

But speaking of people, I noticed that several of the reporters that I got to know way back then are still here. People like Vaughn Palmer, Justine Hunter and Keith Baldrey. For them, I wonder if it's a bit like the movie Groundhog Day watching events here day after day after day, year after year.

However, when I left the internship program to work as a backcountry ranger at Manning Park, I thought to myself that I had to find a way to get back here someday. Who could have predict what would eventually happen?

The fact that someone from a middle-class background could come from a family without any political connections to become a cabinet minister is a profound testament to the openness of our democratic system in the province of British Columbia. The lawyers I once worked with in Thailand found it difficult to believe that a party nomination against a sitting MLA could be successful on my part without spending more than $3,500. They're also continually surprised at how little we spend in our individual local riding campaigns compared to what they spend.

There were many highlights for me, from being the youngest member of the opposition in 1996 to successfully joining with others to fight the proposed SE2 power plant in order to protect our air quality, supporting efforts to bring reliable and renewable electricity to First Nation communities at the north end of Harrison Lake and elsewhere, working with the member for Chilliwack, when he was the mayor of this great town that we live in, to have a new courthouse built in our community, and later working to improve B.C.'s relations with our neighbors as president of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region.

I won't even mention carrying Vancouver Island marmots on my back as dedicated volunteers and our government worked to increase their population by more than 700 percent or burrowing owls defending their mates and biting my thumb, or our ever-trusty cat, Ranger, who got too close to a candle during Earth Hour.

But I think that I can summarize by saying it's been awesome.

In closing, the ultimate highlight was getting to know so many positive people throughout the province, especially in the great constituency that I'm fortunate to call home. The most important job I've had in the past 15 years is being the local MLA.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the countless hours of my family, friends, my ever-loyal and capable constituency assistant Julie Brewer and many dedicated volunteers who have contributed to the democratic process, starting when I decided to seek the B.C. Liberal nomination in 1995 as a 29-year-old political unknown. Your faith in me is something that I've never forgotten.

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