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Canada Alberta MLA Manmeet Bhullar remembered for devotion to helping others

A flag and white roses lie on the desk of PC MLA Manmeet Bhullar in the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton, on Nov. 24, 2015.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

The call went out at 1:30 p.m. on Monday. Manmeet Bhullar was on the line, talking to his friend and senior political adviser Matthew Macdonald. Mr. Bhullar was driving north on a wintry afternoon, destination Edmonton, where he served as a Progressive Conservative MLA.

Mr. Bhullar and Mr. Macdonald, two law graduates who had studied together at the University of Windsor, reminisced about the past and those all-night study sessions. Both men laughed.

Forty-five minutes later, at 2:20 p.m., Mr. Bhullar was killed on the Queen Elizabeth II Highway just north of Red Deer. He had parked his car on the left shoulder of the road to help a motorist whose car had skidded into the median and rolled over. At that moment, a semi-truck lost control on the icy road and struck Mr. Bhullar, ending a life that his family and friends believed was destined for greatness.

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At 35, experienced in provincial politics and keen to help others both here and outside the country, Mr. Bhullar was a rising star on the Alberta front. Born in Calgary, he earned a bachelor of arts from Athabasca University and a bachelor of laws from Windsor. People from all over the political map valued his opinions and what he would fight for. His loss was memorialized Tuesday in the legislature with a simple show of respect: his desk was draped with an Alberta flag with flowers placed on top.

"He was a big man with a huge heart," said former MLA Rick Orman, who first recalled seeing Mr. Bhullar as a young boy running around in the Orman campaign office in Calgary. Bill Bhullar brought his son Manmeet to the political front lines, making sure he understood the importance of living in a democratic society.

"Manmeet started really early," Mr. Orman recalled. "When he was seven years old, he would deliver flyers … There was this keen interest in politics."

Tall, with a boom-box voice, Mr. Bhullar cut an intimating figure. He had a passion for getting people out to vote. He also kicked up a storm to help Sikh and Hindu refugees out of Afghanistan. He took aim at the federal government by insisting, "It's cruel to send these families to other countries to apply for refugee status, where they may become homeless beggars for months or years while waiting for Canada to approve their paperwork."

As expected, Tuesday was filled with tributes for Mr. Bhullar. The Alberta government has set up a website for people to leave condolences for the deceased MLA. Premier Rachel Notley was elected to Alberta's legislature in 2008, entering the House at the same time as Mr. Bhullar. On Tuesday morning, she spoke about Mr. Bhullar Tuesday during a conference call from Ottawa.

"With his energy, youth and passion, I expected to see Manmeet in public life for decades to come. I believe all Albertans are poorer for the fact we will not," she said.

Naheed Nenshi met Mr. Bhullar in 2008, when Mr. Nenshi ran for mayor of Calgary.

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"He expressed his help. He said, 'We young Indian guys have to stick together.' And I harassed him after that about that ever since," Mr. Nenshi said at a Tuesday press conference on refugees at City Hall.

Mr. Nenshi said the fact that Mr. Bhullar was in politics because he cared about his community was always clear. "He wasn't naive. He was a great political player. He was a backroom master. It was one of the reasons why he was so successful. But he always did it out of a deep and abiding love for community."

Former premier Jim Prentice issued a statement saying, "I know of no person in public life who cared more deeply and passionately about serving others. Indeed that is how he died. He was a pillar of strength for everyone who knew him … His family, friends and community are devastated."

For his 2014 run at the Conservative leadership, Mr. Prentice picked Mr. Bhullar to oversee his campaign. His former study partner and political aide, Mr. Macdonald, has been helping with the family's preparations for honouring a man truly interested in helping those who needed it.

Sandra Jansen was a political novice in 2012 when she met Mr. Bhullar. She was the former television news anchor at Calgary's 2 and 7, and he was the guy who would see Ms. Jansen and begin singing the 2 and 7 theme song.

"The fact that he died while in an act of helping someone along the highway, I think, really says it all. That was Manmeet," said Ms. Jansen. "And maybe that's how you remember him by doing something nice for someone."

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With reports from Kelly Cryderman and Carrie Tait in Calgary, and Justin Giovannetti in Edmonton

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