Partners in the Journey

Bunny and John Ferguson have achieved much as individuals, but it is their shared desire to make a difference that makes their partnership truly powerful

Erica Viegas - 07 January 2016

When John Ferguson fell ill with altitude sickness while climbing near the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2011, his wife, Bunny, had to make a choice: finish the climb to raise half a million dollars for charity or be with her husband as medical staff rushed him down the mountain.

To understand why Bunny decided, tearfully, to push on to summit the mountain, it helps to understand the nature of the relationship. During 48 years of marriage, the Fergusons have faithfully supported each other in their individual endeavours.

They met while working at Imperial Oil in Edmonton - though at first Bunny wasn't really interested in this young-looking Price Waterhouse accountant's attempts to chat with her. One day, though, John noticed a copy of The Gateway on Bunny's desk. "When he mentioned his time in university, I suddenly realized he must be old enough to date," says Bunny with a laugh. They were married in 1966.

In 1975, John founded Edmonton-based Princeton Developments, a major player in Canadian commercial real estate. His foresight helped him see his company through the major real estate crashes of the '80s and '90s. His thoughtfulness and ability to see the big picture are keys to his success. These leadership qualities were also assets when he served as director for Royal Bank of Canada and Fountain Tire, and as chairman of Suncor. He lent his expertise to the University of Alberta, too, serving as chair of the board of governors (1994-97) and as chancellor (2000-04).

As John built his career, Bunny cared for the home, especially while their sons - Brent, Brad and Gordon - were young. "John was the businessperson and I was the family person and you have to compromise and blend those roles to make things work," says Bunny.

Bunny's growth came through public service. Teaching their children to be active community participants was paramount and so, with her boys in tow, she began volunteering. She gave her all to causes that moved her, and others were struck by her high energy, tenacious spirit and caring nature. As her sons grew, so did Bunny's career as a volunteer and community fundraiser. Soon, she was helping develop medical policy and raising millions for organizations she felt could make a difference in the community. In 2002, she became founding chair of the Alberta Business Family Institute at the Alberta School of Business (from which John graduated in 1964), where she referred to John's business experiences and lessons while mentoring emerging family enterprises.

Though they followed individual paths, the pair's shared philosophy helped ground them: projects they took on, they decided, must hold the potential to make a difference. They have been strong partners, lifting each other to achieve their goals and drawing inspiration from each other. "She puts her heart and soul into the things she does," says John. Bunny, in turn, says John is a great leader with a remarkable ability to look at the big picture, listen to all sides and then do what is right. The couple's son, Brad Ferguson, regards it this way: John is the eternal diplomat and thinks of the long term. Bunny is more of the salesperson, focusing on the immediacy of the current cause. "Together, that allows them to work both with conviction and compassion," says Brad, who is president and CEO of Edmonton Economic Development.

The Fergusons' dedication to the community has led to each of them receiving honorary degrees from the University of Alberta. They are also one of the few couples in Canada to both receive the Order of Canada.

"You have to communicate, have respect and appreciate each other's roles. Each needs to have an understanding of what's important to the other."

With so many work, family and community obligations over the years, it would have been easy for John and Bunny to lose sight of one another, to forget to work on their relationship. John will tell you that the key to their relationship was "marrying right," but there's clearly more to it. The pair travel together and stay in shape together. They spend time with their eight grandchildren. And as often as they can, they withdraw to their cottage in Jasper National Park. (Their Jasper cottage was the setting for all photos on this page.) The isolated, rustic retreat insulates them from the demands of their lives back in the city.

Above all, there is respect. Says Bunny.

Over the years, the Fergusons have remained dedicated to the University of Alberta. "Being involved with the university, we don't ever think of it as 'giving back,' " says John. "We want to see what the younger generation is doing, and to give that opportunity to their children, too."

Their latest joint project is the Peter Lougheed Leadership Initiative, a joint venture by the University of Alberta and The Banff Centre, designed to foster the next generation of Canadian leaders. The initiative includes a college on the U of A campus whose founding principal is Canada's first female prime minister, Kim Campbell. The Fergusons have played a key role in the initiative as lead donors, fundraisers, spokespeople, strategists and advocates. Not coincidentally, the Fergusons have long exemplified leadership qualities - even in their marriage, where each knows when to stand back and when to charge ahead for the greater good.

Just as on that day near the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

The climb was conceived as a $500,000 fundraiser for orthopedic surgery at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton. The idea to climb was Bunny's, but John, an avid athlete, was excited at the challenge of taking on Africa's highest mountain. As the couple planned the expedition, John promised to support Bunny in the climb, telling her he would never go ahead of her. They decided that if Bunny couldn't make it to the summit, John would descend alongside her.

But the choice that faced Bunny that day on the mountain was one they hadn't considered: it was John who was unable to make it to the top. Part way into the trek, he hit the wall with altitude sickness. As she watched medical staff prepare to rush him down the mountain, Bunny had to decide whether to continue. She thought of their goal as a couple: to make a difference. She thought of the promise she had made to the fundraising team and she realized that raising the life-changing funds depended on her successful ascent. With John in her thoughts, she summited Kilimanjaro.

By the time she was almost down, John was feeling better and they walked the final leg together back to base camp. When they returned to Canada several days later, the fundraising team had raised almost double its initial goal. A joint donation from the Fergusons boosted the campaign's final tally to $1 million - a testament to the giving nature of their partnership and to their individual, and collective, journeys.