Alberta's 'King Ralph' remembered

Ralph Klein, the colourful and controversial politician who led Alberta for 14 years, is being remembered as a populist leader who never lost his common touch.

Public memorial will be held Friday in Calgary for the 'people's premier' and former Calgary mayor

Ralph Klein 1942-2013

10 years ago
Duration 3:41
Former Alberta premier Ralph Klein, who died early Friday, was a dominant and outspoken figure in Canadian politics. Carloyn Dunn reports

Ralph Klein, the colourful and controversial politician who led Alberta for 14 years, is being remembered as a populist leader who never lost his common touch.

The former Alberta premier died surrounded by friends and family in a long-term facility in Calgary on Friday.

"To me, he wasn't King Ralph, as some described him," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a news release. "Instead, during a colourful political career he remained Citizen Ralph — a man equally at home in the Petroleum Club as he was in the St. Louis Hotel. A man who said what he believed and did what he said.

'Ralph Klein’s ability to connect with Albertans from all walks of life was absolutely remarkable.'— Alberta Premier Alison Redford

"Alberta and Canada have lost a unique and significant leader. While Ralph's beliefs about the role of government and fiscal responsibility were once considered radical, it is perhaps his greatest legacy that these ideas are now widely embraced across the political spectrum."

Klein led Alberta’s long-ruling Progressive Conservative Party from 1992 to 2006, presiding over four consecutive majority governments. In the 2001 election, Klein’s Conservatives won with 62 per cent of the popular vote — the highest-ever level of support for the party that has led Alberta for more than four decades.

The 70-year-old is survived by his wife, Colleen Klein, five children and grandchildren.

"In his public life, while many will now debate what he stood for, he himself simply believed that public service was important, that it need not be complicated, and that it revolved around people," said Colleen, on behalf of the Klein family.

"In his private life, his greatest gift to his family was that when the long work days were over, and he came home, it was his sanctuary, and the politics stopped at the door.

"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 Colleen.

'Mayor Klein'

Before entering politics, Klein got his start as a TV reporter and media personality in Calgary. In 1980, he took a shot at that city’s mayorship, winning the bid in an upset. He led that city for nine years, including during the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Friday he was deeply saddened to learn of Klein’s death.

"Our thoughts and condolences are with his wife, Colleen, and their family in this difficult time," wrote Nenshi in a statement.

"Ralph Klein taught us, as Calgarians, that we don't need to put on airs. We don't need to pretend we're something we are not in order to be a truly great city in this world," Nenshi said.

"The many highlights of his career and political legacy will undoubtedly be shared over the coming days, and many Albertans will mourn him as a beloved former premier. But Calgary was always the city he called home. A true born-and-raised Calgarian, he served as mayor from 1980-1989 and, to me, he will always be Mayor Klein."

A public memorial for Klein will be held at Calgary's Jack Singer Concert Hall on Friday at noon.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford said Friday that Klein's passing is a loss to all Albertans.

"Ralph Klein’s ability to connect with Albertans from all walks of life was absolutely remarkable," said Redford.

"He could walk from the Petroleum Club in downtown Calgary to the curling rink in St. Paul and carry on a conversation with absolutely everyone he met. Ralph was a real man of the people."

Not just an Albertan

Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said he was friends with Klein since the early 1980s and that while the two had their differences, he always found him very fair and co-operative.

"He was [a] populist, close to the people and ... he was not a guy who wanted to play the big shot."

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Chrétien saluted Klein for not being brash about Alberta's wealth, saying Klein was aware he was privileged to have resource revenue but showed a great desire to keep Canada united.

The former prime minister said it was always fun to be around Klein because he was not a snob. 

"We lost a great guy, Alberta lost a great man and Canada lost a great Canadian too."

Paul Martin, who was in the prime minister’s office while Klein was premier and worked with him on improving the Canada Pension Plan, agreed that Klein's legacy extends well beyond Alberta's borders.

"The one thing I always noticed about Ralph Klein was that while he was the premier of Alberta, he was also a great Canadian. He did look for the national interest," Martin said.

"We’ve lost a Canadian today who has made a major contribution to his country," said Martin.

"He was a lot of fun, he was a great deal of fun. You could talk serious matters, but you didn’t have to necessarily wallow in them."

'He had no enemies'

Klein's former chief of staff Rod Love says that in retrospect, there are two things that set Klein apart from other politicians.

"He never lied, ever," Love said. "He never looked you in the eye and lied. And secondly, after 25 years in politics — at the highest levels, mayor, minister of environment, premier of Alberta — he left politics in 2006, he had no enemies. Think about that. When he walked out of the legislature in December of 2006 he had no enemies after a quarter of a century of elective politics. Nobody hated his guts. That's a legacy."

Love says that part of Klein's success was that he knew how to apologize if he made a mistake.

He also says he has no regrets about how Klein's career played out.

"Why would you? It was the greatest ride in Canadian history."

Don Getty, who was premier of Alberta just before Klein, said Friday he admired his successor.

"I found him to be a very warm, very humorous person. Much smarter than a lot of people might have given him credit for being," said Getty.

Alberta Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith called Klein’s leadership courageous.

"As a leader, Ralph was tough enough to keep his promises, humble enough to admit his mistakes, and disciplined enough to follow through on his vision."

Smith went on to say it was sad Klein would not be around to offer guidance to a new generation of politicians.

Former Reform party leader Preston Manning called Klein a "man of the people."

"I think part of his attraction to Albertans was that they felt he was one of us. He also, of course, was a strong fiscal conservative and managed to reduce the debt and deficit and taxes at a time when that had to be done. So I think his legacy will be that he left the province stronger than when he came to power and that he endeared himself to an awful lot of Albertans."

With files from the Canadian Press