Ralph Klein, the popular, outspoken, Everyman premier who slayed Alberta’s debt dragon, has died. Alberta Health Services issued a statement on behalf of Klein’s family saying the former premier died on Friday.
“Ralph was a staunch defender of our province as he had a deep and abiding love for Alberta and Albertans,” Alberta Premier Alison Redford said. “His passing is a loss to us all.”
Klein, 70, had been in a Calgary care home since developing dementia and chronic lung problems. His health deteriorated soon after he retired as premier in 2006 after serving as Progressive Conservative leader for 14 years.
“The nature of his illness made it very difficult to express his thoughts these past years, which I⊇know was a real challenge for him, but Ralph very much knew and appreciated the well wishes and warm messages he received,” said his wife, Colleen Klein, in the family statement.
During his time as premier, Klein introduced austerity measures and privatization initiatives that, coupled with multibillion-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. His four successive majority governments proved that politicians who did what they promised and stayed the course could surmount the most divisive of policies.
Klein was born in Calgary on Nov. 1, 1942. Growing up in the working-class neighbourhood of Tuxedo Park, Klein showed an early flair for leadership.
“He was asked once in school what he wanted to be,” recalled his younger brother Lynn, a retired paramedic who lives in Victoria. “He said, ‘The boss.’ The teacher said, ‘The boss of what?’ And Ralph said, ‘I don’t care. I just want to be the boss.’ Ralph had that kind of drive within him.”
In his younger years, Klein moved around, dropped out of high school, tried the air force, then went into business school public relations before joining the CTV affiliate in Calgary as a reporter. During that time, he reported on the grinding poverty of the nearby Siksika First Nation — an experience that galvanized his determination to draw attention to the band’s plight.
He also covered city politics, but when he decided to run for mayor in 1980 against incumbent Ross Alger, he was considered the longest of shots.
“We all kind of laughed when he said he wanted to go into politics,” his brother said. “I remember my father saying, ‘Maybe you better start small, son. … Ralph said, ‘No, I want to be in a position where I can actually make change.’ ”
Klein travelled around in a motorhome on a shoestring budget with his friend and political right-hand man Rod Love.
He was only 37 when he won, but the man with the thick head of hair and perpetual spare tire, known for enjoying a few cold ones at Calgary’s low-rent St.⊇Louis Hotel, would not lose a political contest again.
He spurred development and business partnerships in Calgary to elevate the city known as Cowtown into an international hub of commerce and culture.
He became a folk hero.
With Klein as an example — he was a child of divorce, a high school dropout from some of Calgary’s meaner streets — everyone could believe he or she had a shot at becoming premier.
He brought his Progressive Conservative party back when it seemed poised to lose power in the 1993 election. In 2001, his party won 74 of 83 seats. “Welcome to Ralph’s World!” Klein announced to cheers in his victory speech.
As oil prices rose and billions of dollars rolled into the treasury, Klein announced in 2004 that the province had set aside enough money to pay off its debt.
But eventually, he turned into a tragic figure. He smoked like a chimney and had a drinking problem. In 2001, he drunkenly stumbled into an Edmonton homeless shelter, threw money at some of the people there and told them to get jobs.
Three years later after slaying the debt, he was a knight errant without a cause.
He became the controversial standard-bearer for more privatized health care to solve spiralling costs. Despite having the cash and political capital to spend, Klein would talk of change, but retreated when protests mounted.
As billions of petro-dollars rolled in, so too did hundreds of thousands of newcomers looking to stake their claim or build a new life — jamming roads, filling housing, spilling out of schools and lining up at hospitals. Shortly before he retired, Klein admitted he never had a plan for them.
Klein planned to step down in 2007, but left in 2006 after a tepid 55 per cent vote of confidence at a leadership review.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark, in a statement, called Klein “one of Canada’s most passionate and colourful politicians.”
“He was a dedicated booster of his hometown, and a tireless defender of Alberta’s interests,” she said.
His brother, Lynn, said he’ll remember Ralph for his strong word, loyalty and generosity. Ralph visited Victoria every couple of years with a jersey or large donation in support of his sister-in-law’s fundraising efforts on behalf of the B.C. Paraplegic Association and Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Victoria.
“I often used to remind people, don’t confuse what a person does with who they are,” Lynn said. “He’s also a father, a husband, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, a great golfer — probably a thousand and one more things than a premier.”
Klein is survived by his wife, Colleen, and five children.
- with files from Times Colonist
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