By Doug Firby
CALGARY — There has been a nationwide outpouring of tributes to the late Ralph Klein, the popular and populist premier who died last week at the age of 70 from complications related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
One of the most striking comments came from Paul McLoughlin, a journalist based in Edmonton, as he was trying to explain the roots of Klein’s popularity, which endured even as the premier resorted to extreme measures to curb the province’s spending and pay down the provincial debt. It seemed that for every enemy Klein made with teachers, health-care workers or others caught in his cuts, he made four friends from the rest of the province.
It’s all the more remarkable that people who share very little of Klein’s political philosophy — people like Green Party leader Elizabeth May, for example — could only find kind words to say of the man after his passing. If Klein were looking down from above to witness this current spectacle, one could imagine him having a little smile at the fact that he has become untouchable.
The striking thing that McLoughlin observed — and quite correctly, I believe — is not the clichés we hear over and over again: that he did what he said he would do or that he ran to the front of parade (in his Klein’s own words). The striking thing is that Klein understood and spoke to Albertan exceptionalism — the desire to be something more and different from the rest of the country.
When we talk about exceptionalism in this country, we often think of that other province that frequently finds itself standing alone from the others, on culture, the constitution and many other factors: Quebec. Alberta, it seems, is not so different from that eastern province in that their people also feel they are different — yes, even better — than the rest of the country. It’s no coincidence that the only other province besides Quebec to seriously raise the issue of separation is Alberta. There is a part of us that feels we could do better on our own.
What makes Alberta the exception?
— Its people are fiscally conservative. For the first half of its history, Alberta was a poor province. Hardscrabble citizens learned how to manage their money carefully, and never forgot. Although some might say Alberta has lost its edge from the deepest days of its fiscal conservatism, the desire to avoid debt, even if it means personal sacrifice, is still a powerful pull.
— Albertans are deeply distrustful of federal power, especially in the hands of politicians whose power base is rooted in Central Canada. The National Energy Program, Pierre Trudeau’s western political Waterloo, has become a metaphor for a cohort of politicians who don’t know Albertans, and don’t appear to really care for their welfare.
— It’s a province of mavericks, even if it’s the cornpone variety. As the brilliant social observer Aritha van Herk so carefully traced in her polemical study, Mavericks: an Incorrigible History of Alberta, Alberta’s powerful alienation from central Canada is rooted in the very physical makeup of this province, and continues today.
— Albertans don’t believe in “gifts” from the state, favouring the contributions of families and friends over publicly financed welfare.
Klein understood all those things, right back to the days in the 1980s when he was mayor of Calgary, at a time when an underdog western upstart of a cowtown had the chutzpah to think it could host the world at the winter Olympic Games. His follow-up act was even more spectacular; as premier, he showed every other jurisdiction in the country that runaway budgets can be brought to heal. His imitators include Ontario’s Premier Mike Harris and even federal Liberal finance minister Paul Martin.
Exceptionalism is not an entirely admirable trait, of course. Is this province really better than the rest of Confederation, or just more cocky? Is there not a sense of hubris at play? One wonders whether the swagger will outlive the resources that have fueled its economic prosperity.
And yet, the sense that this province can do things better drives its people to reach further and try harder. It is part of the reason that there is a palpable sense of disappointment that the well-meaning current premier, Alison Redford, cannot manage the province without incurring new levels of debt that threaten to undermine the Klein legacy.
The spirit of Klein lives on, long after frontotemporal dementia cruelly stole his devilish wit. Ralph Klein made Albertans feel not only that they deserve a seat on the Confederation bus, but also that it is front and centre. Preston Manning said, “The West wants in.” He might have said, “The West wants to take the wheel.” It is for that reason that Albertans will cherish Klein’s memory fondly, and the rest of Canada will begrudgingly have to admit he was one of the most interesting leaders the country has ever seen.