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It was exactly 35 years ago that an Alberta government changed February in Canada forever, announcing in a throne speech its plan to create a province-wide statutory holiday on the third Monday of the month – creating a long weekend during some of our bleakest and coldest days.

In the intervening years, four other provinces have followed suit, with British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick all adding it to the calendar. Three other provinces have a holiday on the same day: Prince Edward Island has Islander Day, Manitoba has Louis Riel Day, and Nova Scotia has Heritage Day.

If you have any time to take a break, you can go back to the story of Family Day, with former Progressive Conservative premier Don Getty taking a leading role. In promoting the new holiday – which was probably his most memorable achievement – Mr. Getty often implored Albertans to take the time to “reflect” on family.

It’s always been hard to separate that plea from some of the darkest days in his own family’s story.

Before he was Alberta’s PC leader, the Westmount, Que.-born, University of Western Ontario graduate was an Edmonton Eskimos quarterback and star cabinet minister. However, his time as premier was spent in the shadow of low oil prices and his more famous predecessor, Peter Lougheed. Mr. Getty famously lost his Edmonton-Whitemud riding to a Liberal in the 1989 provincial election, and as premier had to run in a by-election in rural Stettler to secure a seat in the legislature.

His every remark on family was dissected because his government’s declaration to focus on family came just months after his oldest son had been arrested for cocaine possession and trafficking. Don Braid, a stalwart of the Alberta media, wrote about the moment the story broke in 1988, as the premier and his wife Margaret were at a Western Premiers’ Conference in Saskatchewan.

“The pain in those parents’ faces was so obvious and so brutally public that one almost had to look away, as if from a terrible accident.”

Don Getty didn’t speak much about his private life. But on the campaign trail in 1989, he often told people he and his wife knew “the private hell” of drug abuse. “Early in the campaign he left the impression he was talking about his son,” an Edmonton Journal editorial said at the time. “He has since elaborated in his speeches, saying he knows because parents write to him.”

The indomitable Alberta Liberal MLA Bettie Hewes said then that Mr. Getty’s rhetoric on the family was pure electioneering, especially when the governing PCs had long paid scant attention to the Albertans dependent on social programs. “I hate that because there really is so much that needs to be done, particularly for families who are working hard to stay together but are in poverty.”

At the end of the 1980s, Alberta was still in the throes of persistently high unemployment and economic doldrums. The government’s focus on family was a bit of brightness and optimism. Mr. Getty told a group of reporters deeply skeptical of the value of – or his sincerity about – something as wholesome-sounding as Family Day to get into a celebratory mood, and “think positive.”

The idea for a long weekend in February may also have originally come from Conservative MP and later cabinet minister Flora MacDonald, who had put forward a private member’s bill to that effect a decade before. Alberta NDP MLA (and later leader) Ray Martin had also long advocated for a mid-winter holiday.

Family Day was controversial at first, with employers who usually supported the PCs instead worrying about the costs. But Mr. Getty pushed through the criticism and spent the first Family Day in 1990 in his riding of Stettler. According to the Red Deer Advocate, he wore seal skin boots and fur coat on a sleigh ride with another son.

His oldest son was nearby, but unavailable, locked away at the Red Deer Remand Centre. It had come out in court proceedings that the 33-year-old had been in the throes of a party lifestyle and addiction for most of his adult life.

Mr. Getty never linked Family Day to his own son’s struggles. But perhaps out of one premier’s personal pain, we have this February break in much of Canada to rest and reflect.

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