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Former Alberta premier Ralph Klein, at the unveiling of his official portrait at the Alberta Legislature Rotunda in Edmonton, Alta. on Thursday, August 30, 2007. (John Ulan/John Ulan/The Canadian Press)
Former Alberta premier Ralph Klein, at the unveiling of his official portrait at the Alberta Legislature Rotunda in Edmonton, Alta. on Thursday, August 30, 2007. (John Ulan/John Ulan/The Canadian Press)

Alberta

Ralph Klein's long goodbye Add to ...

Bit by bit, the front of Ralph Klein's brain is failing, taking with it the speech and demeanour that made the free-drinking, chain-smoking high-school dropout the folk hero of Alberta politics.

The diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia, revealed to the family on April 1 and publicly a week later, concludes the former premier's exit from politics, one during which many of the friends and much of the influence he long enjoyed have also slipped away.

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The disease has already taken its toll on the man known as King Ralph, or sometimes, simply Ralph. At 68, he can no longer drive, is rarely able to use a phone and has been forced to give up a hobby that carried him through 26 years in politics, his daily run on the treadmill.

Eventually, doctors say the disease will likely do away altogether with not only his speech, but his personality, while weakening and shutting down his body. Mr. Klein's world is shrinking - a long, slow goodbye for one of the nation's foremost premiers.

"This is tough for me," says long-time colleague Gary Mar, pausing, before deciding he won't discuss the changes in Mr. Klein. "I choose to remember Premier Klein for the great leader he was, the great friend he was. I don't really want to talk about the differences I saw the last three years."

The departure of Alberta's notoriously straight-shooting premier from public life began in a secret-ballot vote in 2006. It was then that Mr. Klein was dealt an embarrassingly weak show of support, with just 55 per cent of party members backing him at a convention. In the previous vote, he'd earned 97 per cent.

He left reluctantly later that year, and soon after took a consulting job with law firm Borden Ladner Gervais, where he stayed three years. A Calgary university created a post in his name and honour, but the faculty was bitterly divided over whether Mr. Klein - who slashed spending on education early on as premier - deserved to hold the job.

Friends in government stopped calling or fell out of touch; some say Mr. Klein pushed others away. His successor, Premier Ed Stelmach, learned of the diagnosis through the media on Friday. Mr. Klein now maintains only a close circle of friends, most prominently Rod Love, his long-time chief of staff and confidant.

"Look, it's the nature of the beast," Mr. Love says. "When you're the leader, you've got a lot of friends, and when it's over, there aren't as many. That's the nature of a rough sport."

Mr. Klein's health problems began when he was diagnosed with emphysema, which led to sudden and uncharacteristic difficulties with his speech.

This month's diagnosis raises further threats. Those with frontotemporal dementia, or FTD, live on average about another decade before something in their weakened body shuts down, bringing death. It's unclear, however, when the degenerative disease first struck Mr. Klein.

People with FTD also have a sizable chance of developing either Parkinson's or Lou Gehrig's disease, both of which shorten life expectancy.

FTD is about one-tenth as common as Alzheimer's, and tends to strike about a decade earlier, says Ian MacKenzie, a University of British Columbia professor of pathology and laboratory medicine. (Experts at the University of Calgary can't comment, because all have treated Mr. Klein at one stage or another.)

All told, the effect of the disease fluctuates day-to-day, Mr. Love says.

"Last time I had lunch with him, we had a good lunch, a good conversation. But, obviously, there are days that are not so good," Mr. Love says. "He had a pretty successful three, three-and-a-half years after he left office. He made some nice money. … Then, he began to have his breathing problems. You know. It's called life."

Mr. Klein served nearly a decade as Calgary's mayor, overseeing the 1988 Winter Olympics, before jumping to provincial politics. He was elected leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party and premier in 1992, and won the first of four majorities early the next year. He eliminated the province's deficit and its debt before - awash in oil and natural gas money - becoming a free spender.

"Afterwards, he just enjoyed the job. The joke at the time was he needed the job for the designated driver," says Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Calgary's Mount Royal University, which created the Ralph Klein Chair in Media Studies in 2008.

Mr. Klein had a knack for earning headlines, with a series of gaffes and controversies Prof. Bratt believes no other politician could have survived.

He walked out of an Ottawa health summit to gamble at a casino, tossed money at a man in a homeless shelter while telling him to get a job, decried the "creeps" and "bums" flooding his city from Eastern Canada, suggested ranchers whose herds were infected with mad cow disease should have "shot, shovelled and shut up" instead of triggering the crisis that closed borders, and opined that then-Liberal Belinda Stronach, a one-time girlfriend of Conservative MP Peter MacKay, did have one "conservative bone" in her body.

"Nothing stuck to him," Prof. Bratt says.

Mr. Klein is cared for by his wife, Colleen, and still has good days. He took a recent golf trip, plays the occasional card game and still makes lunch meetings - one, earlier this year, with former staffer Marisa Etmanski, who said he spoke candidly about his health.

"Ralph doesn't dwell on these sorts of things. He was very honest with me. He told me he was having memory problems and having a hard time with his breath," Ms. Etmanski says, adding: "I don't know too much about this stuff. I think he's trying to keep life as normal as possible, for as long as he can."

 

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