Alberta Order of Excellence member Charlie Fischer

Charlie Fischer CM, MBA, P.Eng., LLD (Hon)

“Show interest in people and they will support you. People at all levels of your organization, and in outside industry groups, volunteer organizations etc., are motivated to support leaders who take the time to interact with them and treat them with respect. Show everyone from board members to cafeteria workers that you care about them and their concerns.”

A leader in Canada’s energy industry, Charlie Fischer of Calgary is a staunch advocate for causes he believes in, from corporate social and environmental responsibility, to children’s health care and post-secondary education. He uses his credibility and influence in the oil and gas industry to build awareness and support for initiatives that make a difference.

Charles Wayne Fischer was born the middle child of three in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on March 21, 1950. The family moved to Calgary, Alberta, in 1953. Self-reliant from an early age, he was all of six years old when he set out on his own to the hardware store to buy a saw for a construction project he had concocted. That’s always been Charlie’s way. If he sees a need for change, he rolls up his sleeves and gets to work to make it happen.

Charlie received his B.Sc. in Chemical Engineering in 1971 and his MBA in 1982 from the University of Calgary. While attending the university, he met and fell in love with Joanne Cuthbertson, a passionate advocate for young people, public education and quality of life issues. They have grown together in learning about building better communities and have made a life together doing exactly that.

Charlie has long had a gift for finding common ground with everyone. He can befriend a cowboy, executive, student, environmentalist, politician, tour guide or grandchild, because he cares to find what he and they have in common. He develops solutions and gets results by finding common ground. For Charlie, a solution means that everyone walks away from the table feeling they have been heard and are part of the solution.

Embracing this collaborative approach to life, Charlie moved swiftly up the ranks of Alberta’s energy industry, succeeding in increasingly more responsible positions with Dome Petroleum, Hudson’s Bay Oil and Gas, Bow Valley Industries, TransCanada Pipelines, Encor and ultimately Nexen. As President and CEO of Nexen, Charlie was responsible not only for its conventional oil and gas business in Western Canada and the U.S. Gulf Coast, and its oil sands interests in Alberta, but also its international oil and gas operations.

Under Charlie’s leadership, Nexen did more than thrive as a business enterprise. It became the model of corporate social responsibility, demonstrating how a large corporation should operate in the developing world. “The way we conduct our business is actually a strategic advantage for us. You do it in a way that communities can benefit from your presence,” he says.

Through Nexen’s operations in Yemen, Charlie spearheaded initiatives designed with the intention of improving the economic and social wellbeing of local citizens, enabling them to share the benefits from oil development by the company. He also ensured that Nexen invested in local education initiatives, including sponsoring over 100 future young Yemeni leaders for their education at the University of Calgary and SAIT, to help the nation build local capacity and community health services.

Charlie set the tone for strong environmental, social and governance standards long before it was conventional. He participated in the Clean Energy Dialogue between the governments of Canada and the United States, co-chairing the Carbon Capture and Storage discussions.

Charlie’s absolute commitment to promoting social responsibility and human rights within Nexen and the energy industry at large received the attention of the United Nations, and he was honoured as a leader within the UN Global Compact business leaders’ summits. His work to promote ethical business in any industry led him to advise governments and the UN on fundamental leadership practices. These ethical business concepts became part of the landmark Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact.

In 2008, Charlie “retired,” but you wouldn’t know it to look at his calendar. Known for his ethics, sought for his counsel and celebrated for his innate ability to build relationships, Charlie has been asked to donate his time and talent to support causes that create better and stronger communities. He has served as a board member and often as chair of local, provincial and national organizations dedicated to energy (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers), government (Alberta Innovates-Energy and Environment Solutions), public policy (Canada West Foundation and C.D. Howe Institute), research (Canadian Institute for Advanced Research), health care (IMAGINE: Citizens Collaborating for Health), post-secondary education (University of Calgary), environment (Climate Change Central), business (Alberta Economic Development Authority), community (Calgary Police Foundation), and sports (Canadian Olympic Development Authority) – to name just a few.

He strongly believes that education can provide opportunities to all, no matter where they come from. That ethic drives the generosity that he has shown his alma mater over the years, serving on the University of Calgary’s board of governors and faculty councils, endowing scholarships and bursaries, and supporting research initiatives with Joanne.

One cause – children’s physical and mental health and pediatric research – has occupied a special place in Charlie’s heart for over 30 years. Through his contributions to the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and Hull Child and Family Services, Charlie helped improve the lives of thousands of Albertans who require access to care. During his 12-year tenure with the foundation, including two years as board chair, Charlie helped build the foundation beyond its grassroots beginnings, nearly tripling the organization’s fund balance by the time he retired. Then, he led the foundation’s first capital campaign and helped motivate the community to contribute more than $52 million to build the new Alberta Children’s Hospital.

But he didn’t stop there. With the hospital built, Charlie turned his time and attention in 2009 to the new Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. At the time, pediatric mental illness research was in its infancy in Alberta. Child mental health issues carried a stigma with the public and even in medicine. While philanthropists did donate to the cause, most did so anonymously. But not Charlie and Joanne. They show the level of their support right in the title of the research position they created and fund to this very day – the Cuthbertson-Fischer Chair in Pediatric Mental Health. Thanks to their vision, Calgary has become the pioneering site for work applying brain stimulation to mental illnesses that affect children and adolescents. Other labs around the world are now following Alberta’s path.

More recently, Charlie also has devoted his energy and passion to improving the health care system in Alberta. As co-founder and vice-chair of IMAGINE: Citizens Collaborating for Health, Charlie has been dedicated to finding ways to ensure that the needs of the patient determine decisions made and care provided, rather than the needs of the health system.

Given his dedication to his corporate and charitable communities alike, Charlie’s list of awards received is long and distinguished. It is telling that one of them is called the Generosity of Spirit award, which he received in recognition of his fundraising efforts for the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation. Similarly, he received the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship, which is given to executives who demonstrate a commitment to the common good beyond the bottom line. He received the President’s Partnership Award from SAIT in 2005, the same year that Alberta Venture magazine recognized him as Business Person of the Year. In 2009, he was named Resource Person of the Year by the Alberta Chamber of Resources, and Canadian Energy Person of the Year by the Energy Council of Canada.

Charlie has received Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012) and Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2002). In response to his decades of service to the University of Calgary, he has received no less than six prestigious awards from the university, culminating in an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 2004. In 2019, Charlie became a member of the Order of Canada.

Charlie learned that he was to receive the Alberta Order of Excellence in May 2020, but passed away on June 17, 2020, before the investiture ceremony could take place. Charlie is survived by his wife, Joanne Cuthbertson, his daughters and sons-in-law – Kate and Joel, and Lindsay and Ian – and two grandchildren. They say that in true Charlie style, he had his own views on what he wanted written in his obituary: “Thank you. Thank you to all who loved him, befriended him, mentored him, challenged him, supported him, advocated beside him, and made his life the full, rewarding and deeply happy life it was.”