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Alberta's debt slayer dead at 70

Folk hero ex-premier leaves behind colourful legacy

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EDMONTON -- Ralph Klein, the popular, outspoken, Everyman premier who slew Alberta's debt dragon, has died.

Alberta Health Services issued a news release on behalf of Klein's family indicating the former premier died on Friday.

Premier Alison Redford immediately issued a statement of condolences.

"Ralph was a staunch defender of our province as he had a deep and abiding love for Alberta and Albertans," Redford said in the statement.

"His passing is a loss to us all."

Klein, 70, had been in a Calgary care home since developing dementia and chronic lung problems.

His health deteriorated shortly after he retired as premier in 2006 after serving as Progressive Conservative leader for 14 years.

"The nature of his illness made it very difficult to express his thoughts these past years, which I know was a real challenge for him. But Ralph very much knew and appreciated the well-wishes and warm messages he received," said his wife, Colleen Klein, in the Alberta Health Services release.

During his time as premier, Klein introduced a number of austerity measures and privatization initiatives that, coupled with multibillion-dollar, oil-fuelled budget surpluses, eradicated Alberta's accumulated $23-billion debt.

His cut-and-slash, damn-the-torpedoes philosophy -- dubbed "The Klein Revolution" -- changed the political tenor in Canada over deficit budgeting. His four successive majority governments proved politicians who did what they promised and stayed the course could surmount the most divisive of policies.

It was the single biggest achievement of a politician marketed as a party-hearty man of the people known to many simply as "Ralph," but who was actually a complex individual of humble background and razor-sharp political instincts.

He was born in Calgary on Nov. 1, 1942. His father, Phil, was a working man and a pro wrestler from Rocky Mountain House, Alta., with family roots that reached back to Germany.

In his younger years, Klein moved around, dropped out of high school, tried the air force but quit, then went into business school public relations before joining the CTV affiliate in Calgary as a reporter.

It was during that time that he reported on the grinding poverty of the nearby Siksika First Nation. The experience galvanzied his determination to draw attention to the band's plight.

He never forgot. As premier, he carried an eagle feather in his briefcase. In 1993, he was adopted into the Siksika Nation and given the name Otskoipiiksi, which means Bluebird.

He also covered city politics, but when he decided to run for mayor in 1980 against incumbent Ross Alger, he was considered the longest of shots.

He travelled around in a motorhome on a shoestring budget with his friend and political right-hand man, Rod Love. Klein's grassroots message of change began to resonate.

He was only 37 when he won, but the man with the thick head of hair and perpetual spare tire, known for enjoying a few cold ones at Calgary's low-rent St. Louis Hotel, would never lose a political contest again.

"Ralph" became larger than life, a leader who took many forms.

He was an action hero.

He spurred development and business partnerships in Calgary to elevate the city known as Cowtown into an international hub of commerce and culture. He blamed Calgary's rising crime problem on "creeps and bums" from Eastern Canada.

He became a folk hero.

With Klein as an example -- he was a child of divorce, a high school dropout from some of Calgary's meaner streets -- everyone could believe he or she had a shot at becoming premier, no matter the circumstances.

He was controversial, likable and eminently quotable. When he made mistakes, he apologized and won sympathy from those who saw in him their own flawed humanity.

At his zenith, he became the conquering hero.

He balanced the budget and broadened the use of privatized services under the government umbrella. He brought his Progressive Conservative party back when it seemed poised to lose its grip on power in the 1993 election.

In 2001, his party won 74 of 83 seats and took almost two votes out of three. "Welcome to Ralph's World!" Klein announced to cheers in his victory speech.

As oil prices rose and billions of dollars rolled into the treasury, Klein announced in 2004 that the province had set aside enough money to pay off its debt.

Eventually, the conquering hero turned into a tragic figure, done in by his demons and perhaps a bit of ennui.

He smoked like a chimney and had a drinking problem. His private affairs went public in 2001 when he drunkenly stumbled into an Edmonton homeless shelter, threw money at some of the people there and told them to get jobs.

And after slaying the debt three years later, he was a knight errant without a cause.

Klein is survived by his wife, Colleen, and five children.

He was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2012, recognition seen as long overdue by some. Because of his illness, his wife accepted the award on his behalf.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 A19

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