Former Alberta premier dies at 70

This story has been updated to include audio interviews with strategist Rod Love, political analyst David Taras, and politician David Swann. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Ralph Klein has died at the age of 70.

Pundits were quick to remember the magnitude of Klein’s contributions to the Alberta political landscape.

“He was charismatic, he was charming, he had an innate sense how to play the game of politics because he could be very tough on his opponents,” said political analyst David Taras of Mount Royal University.

Known as “Ralph” to many, Klein served as Calgary’s mayor and Alberta’s 12th premier. Born on Nov. 1, 1942, he led Alberta’s Progressive Conservative party from 1992 to 2006.

His time as mayor

Klein gained his first political experience on Oct.15, 1980 when he was Klein, seen sharing a moment with his wife Colleen at the opening of Ralph Klein Park, was an influential and sometimes controversial leader in Calgary and Alberta.

Photo courtesy of Shane Flugelected mayor of Calgary. His reign as mayor lasted for roughly nine years and during his tenure he oversaw many major milestones including the 1988 Calgary winter Olympics.

Rod Love, close friend to Klein and political strategist, recalled his most endearing memory of Klein’s tenure.

“When he brought the flag into McMahon Stadium at the close of the winter Olympics,” Love recalled in a recent interview, “he was so proud of the job the city had done in pulling off the winter Olympics and Juan Antonio Samaranch, head of the IOC, said they were the best winter Olympics ever.”

To provincial politics

Klein made the transition to provincial politics in the 1989 general election and was named environment minister in Don Getty’s cabinet.

Interview with Rod Love, produced by Jessica Bartsch

On Dec. 14, 1992 he became the premier of Alberta.

Within mere months of becoming premier, Klein led his party to victory in the 1993 election, winning 51 of the 83 seats in the legislature and almost 45 per cent of the popular vote. Those figures were unheard of at the time, according to Taras.

“Nobody wins those kinds of majorities,” said Taras, a political scientist at Mount Royal University. “They were towering majorities, they were shattering majorities.”

Interview with David Swann, produced by Jessica Bartsch

Taras, who advised the Alberta government on national unity, recalled Klein’s most influential characteristic.

“He was almost like a presence in people’s lives with his ability to know how people felt and know where public opinion was and to be able to express what people were feeling,” Taras said.

An inspiring and controversial leader

Klein with communication students at Mount Royal University during his time as holder of the Ralph Klein Chair in Media Studies, in the Faculty of Communication Studies. The endowed chair was established in 2007 and Klein was its first holder.

Photo courtesy of Mount Royal UniversityDr. David Swann, Alberta Liberal leader of the Opposition from 2008 to 2011, attributed Klein in helping launch his own political career.

“He’s the one that got me into politics because when his government fired me as a medical officer in Southern Alberta, I couldn’t walk away from that. It indicated that the government didn’t respect freedom of speech because at the time I was speaking in public about the need to get more serious about climate change and it indicated they didn’t respect professional opinions on things,” Swann said.

Although mostly beloved by the public, Klein was no stranger to controversy. In the late ’80s, he enjoyed drinking in bars such as the St. Louis and King Eddy in downtown Calgary. In later years, he would get into a heated argument with a homeless man in Edmonton.

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein giving a speech in Calgary, Alberta in 2005.

Photo courtesy of Chuck SzmurloDespite the public controversy revolving around his alleged alcoholism, Klein was remembered for doing great things for both Calgary and Alberta. Love spoke to one of Klein’s largest contributions — “Putting Alberta’s finances back in the best shape in North America.

“When he became premier in 1992 our provincial finances were a mess,” Love recounted.

As Klein’s popularity as leader declined, he eventually resigned as party leader and premier. Soon after, Klein resigned his seat in the legislature in 2007. In the following years, it was publicly revealed he was suffering from a progressive form of dementia.

Interview with David Taras, produced by Jessica Bartsch

Both Taras and Love shared their opinions on what the history books would say about Klein.

“He was an amazing political performer who captured the mood of his time,” Taras said.

Love said, “If his greatest legacy demonstrates that public service is an honorable calling that would be pretty great.”

jbartsch@cjournal.ca 

Calgarians weigh in on Klein’s legacy, here.