August 7, 2014 12:38 pm

Mount Polley tailings breach: Who is Imperial Metals’ Murray Edwards?

Deborah Baic The Globe and Mail

He’s one of Canada’s most prominent billionaires – co-owner of the Calgary Flames, chairman and creator of oilsands giant Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and head of Penn West and other sundry energy companies. According to Forbes, he’s worth about $2.2 billion (but told the National Post last year he doesn’t keep track).

He chairs Ensign Energy (and paid, along with other insiders, a total of $4.37 million as a reimbursement to settle concerns around stock option irregularities earlier this year); he owns Resorts of the Canadian Rockies and chairs Magellan Aerospace.

Forbes called him “the most important billionaire in Canada” two years ago, shortly after the Globe and Mail reported he’d advised Prime Minister Stephen Harper on how to deal with ownership bids by state-owned foreign (read: Chinese) companies for Canadian resource companies.

Murray Edwards is also the controlling shareholder of Imperial Metals, whose Mount Polley mine tailings pond failed catastrophically in the early hours of Monday morning, releasing a wall of sludge and wastewater whose full impact on the people and wildlife of British Columbia’s Cariboo Region have yet to be fully felt.

READ MORE: What five million cubic metres of tailings looks like

Edwards hasn’t spoken on the spill and hasn’t returned calls from Global News requesting an interview this week.

(We feel less slighted knowing that, several years ago, he tried to flee an interview when he found himself alone unexpectedly with a reporter)

Edwards owns 36% of Imperial Metals, whose share price has tanked since Monday’s breach – down 44% by Tuesday, by noon Thursday it was sitting at about $9.55 , compared to more than $16 a week ago.

It isn’t clear what the massive tailings breach will mean for Imperial Metals, which has multiple other mines in B.C. and elsewhere, including Red Chris, which has yet to begin production.

Mount Polley was Imperials’ first mine and, as chairman Pierre Lebel told the Vancouver Sun earlier this year, it almost didn’t materialize when partner Gibraltar pulled out.

“Don’t even think about” abandoning the project, Lebel recalls Edwards saying. “We can do this on our own.”

Lebel described Edwards as a “very engaged partner” on Red Chris – someone who is “all about making things happen.”

“It always amazes me the depth of Murray’s understanding and his ability to retain details and names and events of the past,” Lebel told the Sun. “He engages people as he goes along. People really respond well to him.”

READ MORE: A closer look at Imperial Metals

Recent court cases have established a precedent for a company’s directors being held responsible for environmental misdemeanours: The Ontario government has argued directors of a now-insolvent company were responsible for cleanup at a contaminated site.

But the Canadian Energy Research Institute’s Dinara Millington thinks it’s unlikely the Mount Polley breach will hurt Edwards directly.

“Him personally beign held responsible, I don’t think so. But what might happen is you might see if he’s feeling pressure … he might be selling off shares,” she said.

“There could be pressure – internally or externally … to get him to rethink what companies to invest in.”

READ MORE: BC orders mine to plug toxic tailings release

Last year, Edwards was awarded the International Horatio Alger Award, given to someone “who has persevered through adversity to become a successful entrepreneur or community leader.”

“There isn’t a Canadian more deserving of this award than Murray Edwards – a man of extraordinary business achievement and a dedicated philanthropist,” Dominic D’Alessandro, President of the Horatio Alger Association of Canada, said in a statement at the time. “Murray’s story showcases that hard work pays off.”

An alumnus of the University of Saskatchewan (which named a business school after him) and the University of Toronto, Regina-born Edwards told the Post he grew up in a “spectacularly unspectacular middle-class family.”

“Anybody can do a deal,” he said at the time. “The tough part is doing the deal at the right time, being strategic.”

Report an error

Comments