CANMORE – From humble beginnings as a Banff conservationist to the most infamous man in Alberta.
When Ed Whittingham arrived in Banff on Jan. 20, 1994, he never imagined he would be become a target of the United Conservative Party in the 2019 provincial election battle after he was appointed to the Alberta Energy Regulator board.
“I pulled up on a bus late at night, got out and walked through downtown Banff. I had a big backpack on my back and skis and my ski boots,” said Whittingham, noting he was also outdoorsy and had a love of nature. “I was a ski bum, a ski guy.”
Fast-forward 25 years.
In the lead up to the 2019 provincial election, Whittingham became a political punching bag for Jason Kenney’s UCP, who condemned his appointment by the NDP to the Alberta Energy Regulator amid allegations he was an enemy of Alberta’s oil and gas industry.
In fact, when the party’s election platform was released he was the only private citizen named in the UCP’s election platform – with a promise from Kenney, now premier, to fire him from the AER when elected.
“It was a smear campaign,” said Whittingham, who was attacked for his time working with the Pembina Institute from 2011-17, an organization that advocates for responsible fossil fuel development.
“I’ve been called the most hated man in Alberta, called anti-oil and gas, anti-Alberta. It was definitely a surreal experience.”
Specifically, Kenney accused Whittingham of being involved in a “campaign of economic sabotage” against the province’s economic interests.
“We will fire Ed Whittingham,” he said on the campaign trail.
But before Kenney could make good on that promise, Whittingham resigned the day before the plan to fire him.
Whittingham made up his mind to do that as soon the UCP won the election, unable to support the government’s new energy policy direction, particularly surrounding the emissions cap, and the tactics they used.
“Call it irreconcilable differences,” he said.
When it came down to it, he also wanted to show his children – Beck, 15, Alice, 12 and his 17-year-old niece Kaela, who is under his guardianship – the importance of standing up for what you believe in.
“At the risk of sounding motherhood and apple pie, I thought it was really important to show them that you’ve got to do the right thing, so yes, principle was very important to me,” said Whittingham, who now lives in Canmore.
“There was also a little element of ‘f--k me, well f--k you.’ You don’t want me, so I’m not going to wait for you to march me to the gallows for my public execution, and control the narrative. I’m going out on my terms, and I did.”
On Twitter, Premier Jason Kenney replied that it was gracious of Whittingham to resign “a day before we could fire him.”
“Our government will never appoint people like him who are avowed opponents of Alberta jobs,” he said. “And we will stop all funding to groups engaged in economic sabotage against Alberta.”
Locally, Whittingham’s story began in the early 1990s, when he moved to the Bow Valley after a short stint in Whistler, B.C. He grew up in Ontario and also spent time as a teen in Japan.
On that night on Jan. 20, 1994, he got off the bus and walked through downtown. He spent his first night at the YWCA before heading to the Banff international hostel on Tunnel Mountain the next day.
“I bumped into an elk on the way up and was blown away, and then as soon as I walked into the lobby of the hostel, there was this lovely Japanese girl on the phone talking, who ended up being my wife (Yuka Ozawa),” he said.
“Within my first 24 hours of being in Banff I met my future wife, one of countless international marriages that were formed at the Banff International Hostel. I swear the Banff hostel should find a way to charge a marriage arrangement fee,” he quipped.
Landing his first job at Monod Sports, it wasn’t long before he moved on to the Japan Travel Bureau, guiding tourists throughout Banff National Park at a time when Japanese tourism was through the roof.
In the coming years, he was in and out of Banff, but in 1997, he fell in with a crowd of local actors as well as an environmental group known as UTSB Research and The Bear Society.
That was the time of the controversial commercial development debate. Sheila Copps, the minister at the time responsible for Parks Canada, rejected the townsite’s referendum results and further capped future development at an additional 350,000 square feet.
In fact, Copps referred to Whittingham’s environmental group as “three men and a fax machine.”
“We were very vocal and influential at that time,” said Whittingham, also crediting Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and Bow Valley Naturalists in the fight against saving the park from rampant development.
Whittingham had been involved in human rights activism before that, particularly around the Free East Timor movement, but this was his start to environmental activism.
UTSB and the Bear Society also filed lawsuits against the Fairmont Chateau Lake – one against the seven-storey convention centre and the other against the hotel’s water withdrawal permit.
“Here was a homecoming of sorts,” said Whittingham. “I’d always been an outdoorsy kid growing up in Ontario, and working on parks and protected areas and nature conservation felt very natural.”
Believing in seeking a variety of perspectives in his environmental activism, Whittingham later took an MBA in international business and sustainability at York University. He had previously studied at McGill, UC Berkeley and Sophia University in Japan.
Having finished his MBA, he moved back to Alberta and began working with the Pembina Institute from 2011-17. He was courted by friend Marlo Raynolds at Pembina, who is now chief of staff to the federal minister of environment and climate change, Catherine McKenna.
Over the years, Whittingham’s work was well received within some members of the oil and gas industry as someone who helped build bridges between the controversial economy and conservation debate.
He’s consulted in the oil and gas industry for 15 years, co-chaired the oil and gas technical table for the previous NPD government, and sat at a world economic committee that looked at the future of oil and gas.
“So for someone who’s anti-oil and gas, I’m spending a lot of time, working on the responsible development of oil and gas,” he said.
“I say I’m pro responsible development of Alberta’s oil and gas resources and I’ve got a long track record of that, extensively published.”
Work at Pembina has always been about the pace and scale of oil sands development, he said.
“It was never shut it down,” said Whittingham.
“It was, like, managing the pace and scale so we don’t blow through carrying capacity of air, land, water, and climate – and we weren’t alone in saying that.”
What’s next for Whittingham?
“I still work on clean energy policy and projects,” he said.