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Alberta Premier Ralph Klein leaving a meeting of the first ministers on equity in Ottawa, Oct. 26, 2004. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)
Alberta Premier Ralph Klein leaving a meeting of the first ministers on equity in Ottawa, Oct. 26, 2004. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)

OBITUARY

Ralph Klein, 70: The man who ruled Alberta Add to ...

He won re-election in 1997 with an even larger share of the popular vote (51 per cent) than in the previous election four years earlier, and with 63 of the 83 seats.

He made some big mistakes but nobody could regroup faster. In March 1998, his justice minister Jonathan (Jon) Havelock introduced The Institutional Confinement and Sexual Sterilization Compensation Act, allowing victims, who had been forcibly sterilized, no more than $150,000 in compensation, and invoking the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to block any legal challenges.

Faced with opposition outrage at the spectre of victims, whose human rights had been denied in the past, being robbed of their legal rights in the future, Mr. Klein recalibrated quickly and had his justice minister rise in the legislature the next day, apologize and withdraw the bill. Crisis defused.

Having learned a hard lesson about the political dangers of blithely invoking the notwithstanding clause, Mr. Klein refused to object to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the case of Delwin Vriend. An instructor at a religious college in Edmonton, Mr. Vriend had sued the Alberta government, arguing that the province’s human-rights legislation should have protected him from being fired because he was gay.

The case went to the Supreme Court, which agreed with Mr. Vriend and consequently read the protection of gay rights into the legislation. Despite a volatile caucus that included the social conservative Stockwell Day, Mr. Klein insisted it was “morally wrong” to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and won the vote by a two to one margin. Crisis averted.

The third time he went to the electorate, in March, 2001, he won an even more conclusive mandate with 62 per cent of the popular vote, and 74 out of the 83 seats in the Legislature. After the results were in, Mr. Klein, who had been sipping red wine for hours, delivered an emotional victory speech that began with the arrogant boast: “Welcome to Ralph’s World.”

A formidable boozer, Mr. Klein was forced to confront his drinking problem in his third term as premier. In November, 2001, he was so drunk when he introduced one of his heroes, Bill Clinton, at a Calgary fundraiser that the former American president was said to have asked to be distanced from the premier as the evening wore on and on.

Less than a month later, Mr. Klein dropped into a homeless shelter after his reporter’s instincts were roused by a series on poverty in the Edmonton Journal. Unfortunately, he was no longer a journalist, it was late at night and he was far from sober. Mr. Klein got into an argument with some of the drop-ins, told them to get jobs and flung some money on the floor before his security guard managed to hustle him into the waiting car.

As so often happened with Mr. Klein, he had no recollection of his activities the next morning – other than a hangover. Reporters, tipped off by eyewitnesses, began asking questions and the ever savvy Mr. Klein decided it was time to come clean about an alcohol problem that had begun half a century earlier when he was a preteen slugging back homemade wine in a neighbour’s basement.

He called a news conference, which was covered nationally, tearfully acknowledged he had a drinking problem – although declining to admit he was an alcoholic – and vowed to deal with it. Hundreds of e-mails and letters of support poured in. Once again, Mr. Klein had won the day in the only forum that counts for a politician: public opinion.

He garnered the same empathy two years later in an off-the-cuff reaction to the mad cow crisis. When a rancher shipped a diseased cow to a slaughterhouse in northern Alberta in 2003, the premier opined to the CBC: “I guess any self-respecting rancher would have shot, shovelled and shut up, but he didn’t do that.”

While inspectors and other officials looked askance, Mr. Klein surmounted criticism because he was voicing what many ranchers privately felt: Take care of the problem and keep your trap shut. With shipments of Alberta beef stopped at the U.S. border and banned in other countries, Mr. Klein tried to defuse the potential disaster in the $5-billion-plus industry with a grandstand stunt: He offered to give $10-billion to any Japanese citizen who came to Canada and became ill from eating meat that could be traced to mad cow disease.

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