Albertans mourn ‘the people’s premier’

Klein never lost his sense of humour, says longtime friend and former associate

  • Apr. 3, 2013 1:00 p.m.
Former Calgary mayor Ralph Klein

Former Calgary mayor Ralph Klein

Bill Graveland

The Canadian Press

CALGARY — A longtime friend of former Alberta premier Ralph Klein said last Saturday that the family wanted his journey to end where it all began 44 years ago.

Ralph Klein, the premier of Alberta from 1992 to 2005, deserves his status as one of Canada’s premier conservative political icons. It was his populist, small-government revolution (dubbed “The Klein Revolution”) that prevented Alberta from facing a debt crisis similar to the one now being experienced in Quebec and Ontario, and which paved the way for Alberta’s political and economic ascendance within Canada.

Rod Love said the family was offered a state funeral for Klein, 70, who died peacefully in his sleep Friday after a long illness.

He said the answer was no.

“Mrs. Klein and the family say he walked into the old Calgary City Hall as a 26-year-old kid reporter and Mrs. Klein just said that’s where it all started and that’s where I want it to end,” said Love, Klein’s friend and confidant, in an interview with The Canadian Press outside his Calgary home Saturday.

A celebration of Klein’s life is planned for this Friday at the Jack Singer Concert Hall, across the street from where Klein was a reporter and later Calgary’s mayor.

Former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow is scheduled to be one of the speakers at the service. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is also expected to attend.

Klein began as a longshot when he ran for mayor in 1980, but his grassroots message of change resonated. He won and he never looked back.

Under his watch, the city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1988.

He made the jump to provincial politics and, as leader of the Progressive Conservatives for four successive majority governments, he proved that politicians who did what they promised and stayed the course could surmount the most divisive of policies.

During his time as premier, Klein introduced multiple austerity measures and privatization initiatives that — coupled with multi-billion-dollar, oil-fuelled budget surpluses — eradicated Alberta’s accumulated $23-billion debt.

His cut-and-slash, damn-the-torpedoes philosophy — dubbed “The Klein Revolution” — changed the political tenor in Canada over deficit budgeting.

He stepped down in 2006, and he fell into ill health shortly after.

Love said Klein never lost his sense of humour and he finds it amusing that people continue to ask what his secret to success was, as if it was a “magic potion” or a “file in a safe.”

“The secret was he never lied to people,” said Love, who was also once Klein’s chief of staff. “He said here’s the truth. The Ralph Klein that I met Labour Day of 1980 was the Ralph Klein that I said goodbye to at his bedside yesterday.

“I mean the politics and the policies and the things he did and everything he did … all of which were good and important and mistakes were made and so on and so forth … but are people talking about politics? No. They’re talking about Ralph. What’s the legacy? The legacy is not what he did — the legacy is who he was.”

On the streets of Calgary, there were fond memories shared by many who simply knew Klein by his first name and considered him as “the people’s premier.”

“It was always Ralph,” Marilyn Benko said. “He was just a down-to-Earth people person and that’s why I think people didn’t call him premier. He’ll be remembered for all the good he’s done for Alberta, his friendliness and his compassion for the people and all the wonderful things he’s done for everyone.”

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall added his name to those extending condolences to the Klein family Saturday, remembering Klein’s kindness in meeting with him when he was the leader of the opposition.

“He was very generous with his time and with his counsel,” Wall said in a statement.

Love said Klein was a champion of Alberta rights, but equally proud to be a Canadian.

“I think former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, who’s going to be saying a few words next Friday, put it best,” Love said. “He said Ralph Klein showed that you can be an ultra-strong Albertan and defender of Alberta rights and still be a fabulous Canadian.”

Calgarian Nancy Cormier agreed and said she will remember Klein for his convictions.

“I voted for him,” she said. “I think he will be remembered for speaking frankly about what he thought of Alberta and for sticking by the people. I think he will be missed a lot.

“It’s always Ralph. When you hear the name Ralph, your mind goes to him.”

— Black Press