Former Alberta premier Ralph Klein’s death has generated a wave of fond memorials in the Canadian media and on websites.
To the Canadian right, Klein was a political icon who slayed the provincial debt.
His irrepressible sense of humour, honesty, and common touch endeared him to many Canadians, regardless of their ideological disposition.
Klein’s attempts to expand private health care also won him a following among more conservative members of the medical profession, while enraging those on the left.
And more than anyone else, Klein turned Alberta into a petrostate by imposing minimal environmental and financial barriers on corporations that wanted to extract bitumen. That has transformed the national economy by driving up the value of the dollar and creating a wave of interprovincial migration to Alberta.
Klein’s brother Lynn revealed on CBC’s Cross Country Checkup that he and the former premier grew up in the home of their grandparents, who abhorred debt. This notion infused Klein from a young age, and helps explain some of his actions as premier.
Former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell has praised Klein for his keen interest in creating a gateway to Asia through Prince Rupert, and for working with B.C. to break down interprovincial trade barriers.
All of this adoration for Klein is starting to resemble the outpouring of affection for former NDP leader Jack Layton after his death, even though the two men had very little in common politically.
Klein was a polarizing figure. Progressives often saw him as a menace to the country’s safety net. And when Klein gave Alberta welfare recipients one-way bus passes to B.C., the then-NDP provincial government responded with a three-month residency requirement for anyone who wanted to collect social assistance.
A B.C. Supreme Court judge later struck down that measure as unconstitutional. But it speaks to just one way in which Klein had a significant impact in this province. Klein and Campbell also upset the B.C. labour movement with their Trade Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement. Their critics saw TILMA as a means to lower labour and environmental standards.
On a positive note, Klein did not go as far as his supporters, including future prime minister Stephen Harper, wanted him to in creating a “firewall” around Alberta.
Harper and some University of Calgary academics urged Klein in a letter to end any federal government influence over health care, pensions, and policing in their province.
Klein, however, resisted their entreaty. “The sense of defeatism that underlies the notion of building a firewall around this province is unnecessary,” he wrote in reply to the letter.
Like Bill Clinton and Jean Chretien, Klein was lucky to rule during a time of rising economic growth in North America. How much of that prosperity was because of their leadership and how much of it was due to other factors will likely be debated for years.