Ralph Klein's life celebrated at Calgary memorial
Former political friends and foes alike remember late Alberta premier fondly
Ralph Klein was remembered today at a public memorial service attended by many of the former politicians he shared public life with.
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The former Calgary mayor and Alberta premier died in a long-term facility in Calgary last Friday at the age of 70.
The "celebration of life," hosted by the City of Calgary, was held at the Jack Singer Concert Hall in the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts, across the street from city hall where Klein sat in the mayor’s chair for most of the 1980s. Klein moved into provincial politics in 1989, serving as Alberta’s premier from 1992 to 2006.
Pipers escorted a guard of honour carrying an urn with Klein’s ashes into the Epcor Centre. As they entered the concert hall a recording of Ian Tyson’s song Four Strong Winds played.
An elder from the Tsuu T’ina First Nation, southwest of Calgary, started the ceremony with a prayer for Klein, partly in the tribe’s native tongue.
Dave Bronconnier, the former mayor of Calgary who was master of ceremonies for the event, began by offering his condolences to Klein’s wife, Colleen.
"The thoughts and prayers of millions of Canadians go out to you," Bronconnier said. "He loved being with people, there’s no question about it."
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi told the audience that Klein was Calgary’s mayor when he was a teenager.
"He remains the template for me for what a mayor does," he said. "He taught us that we as Calgarians, as Albertans, are great.
"Mayor Klein, on behalf of the citizens of Calgary, thank you," he said.
Mike Harris, the former premier of Ontario, spoke next. He said Klein was not just a colleague and fellow first minister, but a friend and fellow golfer — using the term loosely, he joked.
Harris recalled how the two "cost-cutting conservatives" were a good team, particularly at boring meetings.
"'Cover for me,’ he’d say as he slipped out of a meeting for a smoke," Harris said.
"He was straightforward, blunt talking.… When Ralph spoke everyone listened."
Harris also said Klein had a serious side. During the era of deep cutbacks, Klein felt deeply concerned about how they affected people, he said.
Shirley McClellan, who served as Klein’s deputy premier, echoed that point. She said Klein’s political vision was always centred on creating an Alberta where people from all walks of life could achieve their dreams.
"No one ever questioned where he stood on an issue and that’s what made him so real," said McClellan.
Former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, a New Democrat, spoke of how Klein was always able to keep politics and friendship separate.
He recalled a very contentious meeting about Medicare funding among the first ministers in the 1990s.
After an especially long day of sharp political disagreements in a tense atmosphere, Klein insisted everyone at the meeting share a dinner of Chinese takeaway at the end of the day.
"That was Ralph Klein," he said.
'He made the tough calls'
Alberta Premier Alison Redford, who now leads Klein’s Progressive Conservative Party, credited him with leaving the province in better financial shape than when he took power.
"He made the tough calls that he needed to make for the times," she said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper lauded Klein as a pioneer of fiscal conservatism in Canada.
Harper told those gathered that the cost-cutting agenda Klein brought to Alberta in the early 1990s, which was seen by some as radical at the time, is now part of mainstream politics in Canada and around the world.
"Today the wisdom of Ralph's ideas is widely, almost universally accepted," Harper said.
A funeral procession made two public stops on the way to the Jack Singer: one at the McDougall Centre at 11:15 a.m. where the Klein family attended a short presentation from the Alberta government and the other at the Municipal Plaza for a presentation from the City of Calgary at 11:25 a.m.
Calgary police Chief Rick Hanson and Fire Department Chief Bruce Burrell escorted Klein’s widow across the street to the concert hall.
Speaking to CBC News Network ahead of the event from outside the performing arts centre, Nenshi said the city was honoured to host the memorial.
"You know his political career started at city hall just across the street, and to have this final celebration here, it just feels right," he said.
Alberta’s Opposition Leader Danielle Smith recalled Klein’s talent for connecting with people.
"It was not uncommon to see him around town, to go to events, and be able to approach him and talk to him and he always seemed to be very interested about what was on the minds of regular people," the Wildrose Party leader told CBC News.
Before leaving the Tories to join the Wildrose Party in 2009, Smith was president of the University of Calgary Progressive Conservative club.
She said former premier Ed Stelmach moved the PCs too far from the legacy left by Klein on provincial financial management.
Albertans can also share their memories of the former premier on an online tribute page created by the province, and books of condolences have been set up at the McDougall Centre in Calgary and at the legislature in Edmonton, until April 12.