Don Getty, former Alberta premier, dead at 82

Don Getty, who won two Grey Cups as a professional football player and two elections as Alberta premier, a statesman who fought for the Meech Lake Accord and led the province through tough economic times and left, as part of his legacy, a holiday to celebrate the importance of families, died Friday at age 82.

From football to politics, Getty, premier from 1985-1992, remembered by son as 'very decent, nice man'

Getty receives the Order of Canada from Governor General Romeo LeBlanc during a 1998 ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. (File photo )

Don Getty, who won two Grey Cups as a professional football player and two elections as Alberta premier, a statesman who fought for the Meech Lake Accord and led the province through tough economic times and left, as part of his legacy, a holiday to celebrate the importance of families, died Friday at age 82.

Darin Getty said his father died peacefully in hospital early Friday morning of heart failure.

"He was successful in everything that he did," his son said of the late Alberta Tory leader. "He was a great father ... a great family man, and a great husband. He fought right 'til the bitter end, and I could see him fighting," said Getty, who spoke to his father just hours before his death. "(But) he looked at me at one point and he said, 'I'm just all
worn out." '

Getty was premier from 1985 to 1992, taking on the role just as energy prices slumped. By the time he left office, the province's debt had swelled to almost $20 billion, which prompted criticism from his successor, Ralph Klein, who took office in late 1992.

Don Getty dies at 82

8 years ago
Duration 3:02
Former Alberta premier took the reigns of the Alberta PC party dynasty from Peter Lougheed in 1985

But supporters contend Getty was unfairly blamed for factors that were out of his control. "I don't think anybody saw the pending crisis with oil prices," said Patrick Delaney, his former executive secretary, in a November 2012 interview. 

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A son could not have had a better father.- Darin Getty, son of Don Getty

"They dropped by an average of 50 per cent in 1986. That's a significant issue in a province like Alberta that relies a great deal on royalties. That, combined with the capital expenditure programs that Don inherited, made for some difficult times.

"Everybody talks about the deficits that were run up," Delaney said. "Well, I think you need to go back and look at how the revenue stream dried up and what he was faced with. You can't stop a provincial economy on a dime and that was his point."

The life and times of Don Getty

8 years ago
Duration 1:35
A look through the history of former premier of Alberta Don Getty.

Former Edmonton Eskimo 

Donald Ross Getty was born on Aug. 30, 1933, in the Montreal suburb of Westmount. At 16, he fell in love with cheerleader named Margaret Mitchell, who often accompanied the team on road trips. He later attended the University of Western Ontario, where he starred in basketball, while leading the football team to championships in 1952 and 1953. 

He graduated in June 1955 with a degree in business administration. Two weeks later he married Mitchell and they headed west so he could try out for the Eskimos.

The couple had four sons, and during his football career Getty went on to win two Grey Cups. 

He was hired by Imperial Oil a week after he arrived in Edmonton, and started his own oil and gas company nine years later.

Don and Margaret Getty during his time as premier, a role he held from 1985-1992. (Supplied)

Getty entered provincial politics after Peter Lougheed encouraged him to run for the PCs in the 1967 provincial election. Getty was elected in the Edmonton riding of Strathcona West, joining

Lougheed as one of the so-called Original Six Tory MLAs. 

In 1971, the Tories under Lougheed won their first majority government, defeating the Social Credit Party, which had been in power for 36 years. 

Getty was appointed federal and intergovernmental affairs minister; he also served as energy minister. He left politics in 1979 but was drawn back into the political spotlight six years later, when he successfully ran to replace Lougheed as premier and party leader. 

Around that time, Getty learned from his predecessor what could lie ahead. 

"And [Lougheed] said, 'Well, Don, if oil stays at $30 a barrel, you are going to lose $2-1/2 billion your first year,'" Getty recalled in November 2012. 

"I said, 'Peter, what the hell?' And, he said, 'If it drops to $10, we're all going to be broke.' "

From the archives: Don Getty endorses Air Canada

8 years ago
Duration 1:37
Former Alberta Premier Don Getty endorses Air Canada in this clip from the CBC Archive.

Getty led the Tories to a victory in 1986, his party winning 61 of 83 seats. But almost as soon as he took over, a global oil glut saw prices plunge by 60 per cent. Alberta's economy tanked and the province was saddled with what at that time was a record $3.3-billion deficit. Five more deficits followed and the accumulated debt eventually topped $15 billion — about $3 billion more than the assets of the nest-egg Heritage Savings Trust Fund.

Getty's government pumped billions of dollars into oil and forestry initiatives, new pulp mills, loans and sweetheart incentives to encourage drilling. But problems mounted and he was blamed for the failure of a number of government-backed businesses, the most costly of which was a $600-million loss on a cellular phone company called NovAtel Communications.

'A temporary set back'

The Tories won another huge majority in March 1989, but in that election Getty lost his own Edmonton-Whitemud seat to Liberal Percy Wickman.


A Tory MLA in the rural riding of Stettler stepped down, which allowed Getty to win the subsequent byelection that May.

In a bid to make the Senate more effective, Getty held the first senator-in waiting election in 1989. The winning candidate, Stan Waters, was appointed to the upper chamber a year later by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Getty had a rocky relationship with Mulroney. He backed Mulroney's bid for a free-trade deal with the United States but railed against the imposition of the GST in 1991. He fought for the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords to embrace Quebec in the Canadian constitutional fold.

"The greatest thing to me is to have tried," he said after the Charlottetown pact went down to defeat. "Perhaps it doesn't always work out, but not to have tried, now that would have been terrible."

Getty resigned as premier in 1992.

He mostly stayed out of the public spotlight after he left office. He became an officer of the Order of Canada in 1998.

In September 2012, Getty paid his respects as Lougheed lay in state at the Alberta Legislature. His political colleague was 84 when he died.

Principal Group collapse, Gainers loan 

Many Albertans will remember Getty for creating the February Family Day holiday, making Alberta the first Canadian province to do so. 

In a November 2012 interview, Getty said that he faced some opposition from his own government over the holiday, which he proposed as a way to support family values. 

"It took a while, because there were some of my own cabinet who said, 'Oh, come on, Family Day?' " Getty said. "And I said, 'Look, you son of a bitch, we are having a Family Day.' "

On the national stage, Getty played a key role in constitutional talks and was a proponent of the Triple E Senate - "elected, equal, effective."

His time in office was marked by the collapse of Edmonton-based investment firm Principal Group, which led to $457 million in losses for 67,000 investors. 

He came under heavy criticism around that time when he was photographed on a golf course after an assistant said that he was "working out of office."

An inquiry chaired by lawyer Bill Code resulted in a report that blamed the provincial government for failing to provide proper oversight of investment firms.

Getty's government also lent Peter Pocklington $67 million in cash and loan guarantees for the Gainers meat-packing plant in Edmonton. 

The province took over the plant in 1989 after Pocklington defaulted on the loan and sold it several years later, after racking up millions in losses. 

Proud of role in oilsands 

Looking back on his career as a cabinet minister and premier, Getty said he was proudest of the role he played in developing Alberta's resource industry as energy minister in the 1970s. 

Getty helped put together the deal that led to the construction of the Syncrude plant.

"I was determined to build an oilsands plant," Getty said. "And now those oilsands are the greatest thing on Earth … they will be and Alberta will be the centre of them." 

I believe he was a true Canadian who wanted to keep this country united.- Jim Horseman, former Alberta deputy premier

Getty also reflected on his decision to approve $100 million for the construction of the City Centre Campus of Grant MacEwan College that centralized operations in downtown Edmonton. 

"It was just an old, dirty railroad track there, and I was determined, even my cabinet resisted, because it's when I lost the Whitemud seat," he said. 

Getty resisted those calls because he believed that building the campus, now the home of MacEwan University, was the right thing to do. 

"You could see the impact of cleaning that area up and now this magnificent university," he said. 

Host Trisha Estabrooks spoke with the Don Getty's son, Darin.

'He was pretty selfless'

Former Alberta deputy premier and close family friend Jim Horsman said Getty managed to steer Albertans through a historic collapse in oil prices, "not an unfamiliar thing for Albertans to deal with," he said.

"I believe he was a true Canadian who wanted to keep this country united," Horsman said.

"But all in all I think he was a good Canadian and I think he was a gentleman. Actually my wife put it another way. She said 'he was a gentle man.' And I think that's very true of him."

Darin Getty said his father had been in and out of the hospital for various health issues over the past few years.

"A son could not have had a better father. He was always there, not just for myself,  but my other brothers, my mother and my friends," he said.

"I will remember him always being there for me, and my family. He was pretty selfless."

Getty is survived by his wife, Margaret, and four sons. 

with files from The Canadian Press