I was born in Edmonton in 1983 and the first Premier I remember being aware of was Ralph Klein.
Having grown up during the Klein-era, I have a different perspective of those years than most mainstream political pundits and their baby boomer cohort. I have mixed feelings about the announcement today that the former Premier will be receiving the Order of Canada, the highest honour in the land.
There is no argument against his ability as a politician to appeal to an incredibly broad cross-section of society in Alberta. He led the Progressive Conservatives to win four back-to-back majority governments and reached his political pinnacle in 2001 by winning 74 of 83 constituencies and 61% of the popular vote. He was beloved by many Albertans, but he was a larger than life personality that even he was not able to live up to in the end.
Perhaps helping shape some of my own political orientations, my formative memories of Premier Klein were not positive. I remember listening to my parents and grandparents (who are retired teachers) talk about the short-sightedness of Premier Klein’s decision to lay-off tens of thousands of public servants, nurses, and teachers across the province. As a politically interested kid, I remember watching the television and seeing a jovial political leader. I would wonder, “how could he be so bad?”
At the time Conservatives and many Liberals rallied against the perceived excesses of previous PC governments and jubilantly cheered the cuts. Over time, it would become apparent that Premier Klein’s tenancy to lead the populist mob translated into very poor long-term planning. Walk through any hospital today and you will almost immediately become aware of an incredible generational gap in the nursing profession in Alberta. An entire generation of health care and education professionals were told that Alberta was not the place for them.
In 2001, I graduated from high school and soon began my post-secondary career. Over the years, I sat in many dark and dingy Arts lecture theatres that had suffered from many years of deferred maintenance and cutbacks at the University of Alberta. Overcrowded classrooms, less one-on-one time with instructors, and increasing tuition – it was clear that the financial cost and quality of my post-secondary education were not connected. Despite this, I carried on and my academic career was strengthened and enriched by a handful of hard-working and dedicated professors.
While my classmates and I worked part-time jobs and accepted the necessity of student debt while continuing our studies, Premier Klein was accused of having plagiarized large portions of an essay written for a distance learning course through Athabasca University. Despite absolute irrefutable evidence that he had copied sections of the essay directly from the Internet, Premier Klein was cleared of the accusations and received a mark of 77% from the University. The Presidents of the Universities of Alberta and Calgary even wrote letters to the editors of the province’s major daily newspapers defending the Premier. I doubt either of them would have jumped to my defence had I attempted to plagiarize an essay.
While his tendency to overindulge in alcoholic beverages was well-known, and treated as a joke among Albertans, the ugly side of Premier Klein’s substance abuse problem reared its head in 2001. Intoxicated, the Premier had his driver stop at an inner city men’s shelter in Edmonton where he berated a homeless man. He held a sober media conference the next day and promised to clean up his ways.
In 2006, Premier Klein only narrowly won a leadership vote by members of his party. An endorsement of only 55% was a stunning blow to the once seemingly invincible politician. PC Party members sent a clear message that King Ralph had outstayed his welcome. When Ed Stelmach was selected as leader of the PC Party later that year, Premier Klein left the crowd of PC Party members in attendance with only a few flat and unceremonious words that seemed to only take 30 seconds to deliver. That was it. He had entered the Premier’s Office with a bang and left with a whimper.
I am not completely sure what he did when he left politics in 2007. I know he was hired as a business advisor at a law firm, was a one-time gameshow host and a some-time journalism instructor. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Peter Lougheed and Don Getty, he did not have a career or a profession to return to.
He is now suffering from a severe form of dementia.
His supporters will praise the myth of the man, but when you take a closer look at Ralph Klein’s time as Premier, his quickly becomes a sad story.