Nothing Venture 3

After the Western Diversification Conference ended I received a phone call at home from Fred Peacock, Alberta’s Minister of Industry and Commerce. It lasted quite awhile as I recall and he grilled me steadily to learn who I was, what we wanted to do about the refinery, and what resources in people and finances we might have. He lectured me that the Conservative government of Peter Lougheed was neither pro-labour nor socialist but was very eager to see industrial diversification in the province. If we were prepared to undertake a sound business investigation into keeping the refinery operating, he would act as an advisor and referee.

The guys at the refinery who had supported us had a meeting. Were we up to this? What to do first?

The government may not be socialist, but we felt safer contacting worker friendly people first. Most of the active guys were union members, the local president and secretary included. I wasn’t even a member at that point, if I recall correctly. I got in touch with an engineer in the oil industry who had run, unsuccessfully, for Parliament and the Alberta Legislature, under the New Democrat banner, NDP – Canada’s leftist political party. He listened awhile and responded that he had a friend who had helped a group of workers in a refinery in Utah (I believe) start a worker owned company. He would arrange a meeting between us.

We had a meeting in a coffee shop, and out of it we came with the understanding that we had better get busy setting ourselves up as a company – and that he had a contact in the Alberta oil industry who could be very interested in the Calgary Refinery. The first organisation meeting of Calgary Refining Ltd took place in the Calgary Union Hall – the building (now demolished) where the NDP was born. We picked positions and our union local president became company president, the union local secretary became vice president, and I wound up with secretary-treasurer.

After looking to see if having a non-union person on the company board made a difference – it didn’t – I soon joined the union. We were, by this time deep into worker-management ideas and meeting with our National Union president, who had formerly been leader of the NDP in Alberta, as well as the only opposition member of the Alberta Legislature – of any stripe – the late Grant Notley, for further advice.

First of all, we needed to throw some money in the pot to get us started. Bill, who was now our company president had ambitious ideas. He picked one of the most prestigious legal firms in Calgary to be our legal adviser, and similarly one of the top accounting firms to help set up our financial organisation. That was how I came to receive an intensive indoctrination into book keeping, tax filings and other government requirements, and sundry other things I needed to know to keep things legal and keep the executive – us – out of a fraud investigation. It was a good business education that I had never looked for.

We were barely on our feet with business cards and letterhead on our stationery before our NDP affiliated business agent called to say he had a meeting arranged with the Executive VP of a Canadian Independent Oil Company and we were to talk about a joint venture. I’ll tell you about that next time.


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