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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)


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

A natural at working a room, Mr. Klein did well at Calgary Business College, quickly being promoted to principal, but quit for a higher-paying job in public relations for the Canadian Red Cross; a few years later he moved to a communications job at the United Way of Calgary.

Journalism career

A man who drank as hard as he smoked, Mr. Klein loved the social aspects of public relations in the early 1960s – hanging out at the press club, trading sources with journalists and honing the skills that he would later use to advantage as a politician. His carousing had a sour effect on his marriage, but it did the opposite for his career.

By 1968, Mr. Klein had become a reporter at Calgary radio station CFCN. Two years later, he had moved in front of the station’s television cameras as a weatherman, quickly mastering the craft of scribbling numbers backward on a glass weather map. Before long he netted a plum assignment, covering city council.

After a stormy marriage, Mr. Klein and his wife Hilda divorced in 1972. Three months later he married Colleen Hamilton, a divorcee with two daughters, Christine and Lisa. They subsequently had a child together, Teresa, and despite the usual sorts of marital turmoil, they remained a devoted couple for more than 40 years.

As a journalist, Mr. Klein liked to say that “there are no stories in the newsroom.” Among the best ones he found out on the road was a documentary he made in 1977 on the Siksika Reserve in Gleichen on the Bow River, about 100 kilometres east of Calgary. Prince Charles was in Alberta to commemorate the centenary of Treaty 7, which several, mainly Blackfoot, bands had signed with the Crown back in Queen Victoria’s day. Mr. Klein’s assignment was to investigate conditions on the reserve and to find out how the Blackfoot felt they had fared under the treaty.

In a wide-ranging research trip, he studied the rituals and traditions of the Blackfoot and participated in sweat lodge ceremonies. Having developed an empathy for the Siksika people and gained their confidence, he returned with a camera crew and filmed an emotional and often angry documentary in which he confronted authorities about housing conditions and demanded to know why, for example, grocery stores had bulk supplies of vanilla extract on their shelves and why were they selling it at huge mark-ups to obvious alcoholics.

The reaction was immediate after the show aired in June, 1977: outrage from viewers and appreciation by the Siksika, who named him White Writer and later became his political supporters. He never turned his back on the first nations, perhaps in part because his wife Colleen is Métis.

As the years passed, he visited sweat lodges on the eve of provincial election campaigns, carried an eagle feather in his briefcase and hung braids of sweet grass in his offices. The First Nations didn’t forget him either. He was the second white person adopted into the Siksika Blackfoot Nation in 1993 and he was made an honorary chief by the Blood Tribe in 1996.

Mayor of Calgary

Mr. Klein’s biggest scoop as a journalist occurred when he stumbled into the morning story meeting at CFCN in August, 1980, and announced he was running for mayor. He was 37.

When his colleagues scoffed, he gave the story to a rival news operation, the Calgary Herald. “I’ve lived here all my life and it just seems to me a lot of people are paying very little attention to the quality of life in this city,” he said by way of a campaign platform. “There’s not enough attention to the heritage of the city and the community spirit has been lost.”

Instead of promises, Mr. Klein went out in the municipality and listened to voters. “Even if I can’t solve your problems, at least I’ll give you a forum and I’ll listen,” he said during the campaign, thereby articulating the gut philosophy that underlined his political career.

The underdog in a three-way race against incumbent Ross Alger and Alderman Peter Petrasuk, he scored big time when Mr. Love, a political science student at the University of Calgary, signed up as a volunteer on the “It’s Time for Klein” campaign. Mr. Love, whose services had been rejected by the other two candidates, brought discipline and coherence to the campaign.

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