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Ralph Klein and the CommonfolkRalph Klein and the Commonfolk

Ralph Klein and the Commonfolk

The man who had won four consecutive majority governments as Premier of Alberta and reduced the size of government by 20% to eliminate the deficit, then the debt, and left the province's 3.5 million people with $35 billion in savings was standing all by himself, still near the door as if he wasn't certain he was at the right party or was welcome.

Peter Menzies
5 minute read

I remember seeing Ralph Klein a few years ago in the Maple Leaf Lounge—available as a perk to Air Canada's frequent travelers—at Ottawa's airport.

The man who had won four consecutive majority governments as Premier of Alberta and reduced the size of government by 20% to eliminate the deficit, then the debt, and left the province's 3.5 million people with $35 billion in savings was standing all by himself, still near the door as if he wasn't certain he was at the right party or was welcome. The populist whose policies rattled the establishment and ignited the exploitation of the oilsands displayed no swagger, only an awkward hesitance. One of Canada's most influential figures of the past 30 years, who proved fiscal prudence was not inconsistent with political success, could not have looked less significant: no one approached to say hello, except for me.

Ralph seemed OK then, but a few months later when he was my guest at a small dinner for some journalism students, he was not. The wicked humour and twinkle in the eye was gone, as it had been in Ottawa. He seemed incapable of comprehending some rather straightforward questions, which I am certain led some of those in attendance to assume him to be drunk—which, given his fondness for barley, hops, and grape products, wouldn't have been that surprising. But there wasn't a whiff of booze about him and he had declined the evening's wine.

Was this really the man who led the greatest public policy revolution in the country's history?

I wondered to a colleague whether he'd had a stroke, because something was terribly wrong. Somehow, he was broken—spirit, body, or both. I knew the man who'd made Alberta into the most prosperous society in history and set the table for others to improve upon it or not as they wished wasn't drunk because, well, I'd seen Ralph drunk. In my years as a newspaperman I'd somehow (blush) managed to be there when he closed a couple of establishments (once famously signing an executive order on a napkin to permit continued service until 5 am).

When the diagnosis of dementia was made public later on—when The Great Communicator was losing the ability to even speak—I understood. In fact I understood even more because in the years between my father had died of dementia and during Dad's final weeks I was thunderstruck by the fact there were people sharing his ward who were still in their fifties.

Many words have and will continue to be written about Ralph since the former TV reporter, Calgary Mayor and, as noted, Premier died last Friday. Eloquent statements have come from his political friends and foes. Some are heartfelt. Some ooze down the walls with self-serving insincerity. I shall try to tell a different story. One more perspective, if you will. And it is only mine.

Ralph spoke very often of Martha and Henry, the mythical Mr. and Mrs. Commonfolk whom Ralph understood because, well, he was one of them. In fact, he was so much one of them that large segments of Calgary's self-styled sophisticated society—the well-off from the right side of the tracks with the degrees, the prestige and the desire for yet more influence—were absolutely horrified that a man of Ralph's pedigree was their Mayor and then their Premier. Oh, they might have accepted him eventually—society is not that closed here—except he actually never wanted to be one of them or hang out and play the one-kiss-on-each-cheek-that-never-leaves-a-lipstick-mark game. Ralph would rather hang out with Martha and Henry at the racetrack or casino, or drink cheap draught at the St. Louis, or play cards in an afterhours room with the boys in Chinatown than be caught dead being served canapés and Beaujolais Nouveau in a tony mansion on the banks of the Elbow River.

The establishment's view is never really composed of the sum of its individual members' views in a mathematical sense; instead it draws from them to create what eventually becomes its own persona which in turn becomes an opinion leader. So while the establishment contained many who supported Ralph—particularly Mayor Ralph and Premier Ralph—and befriended him, the entity itself never forgave him for not wanting to be one of them.

When Ralph garnered only a tepid confidence vote from his own party not long after winning his fourth majority government, it was time to go. But he never seemed to recover from, as he put it to me more than once, "getting fired." He was, after all, not a man who came from a corporate world of severances and packages and strategic terminations. He was a working man: you either had a job or you didn't.

So comfortable at the podium for $500-a-plate fundraising dinners, he never appeared to fit as an emeritus part of the crowd, as if perhaps these were the same people who had "fired" him. So when dementia began to influence him a couple of years into his post-Premier life he would stand, hesitantly and most of the time alone at the fringes of public functions in rooms where no one remotely resembling Martha or Henry could be found. There, it was easy for the empowered to shun him and mutter and assume the old boy was on the sauce and surely there's someone more important to speak with. I hope that many, once they learned of his debilitating disease, took some very long looks in the mirror; instinct tells me many did not. Certainly no journalist who ripped into him for his failing capacities has ever—to my knowledge—suggested publicly that, hey, maybe it was the disease and not a character flaw that was to blame.

On that Ottawa evening in the Maple Leaf Lounge, Ralph he told me he probably would've left politics earlier if he'd have known he'd still be able to earn a decent living (there's little to indicate he "cashed in"). He didn't have a professional status to return to, after all, or a teacher's pension, and he made it clear he had feared that which lay beyond the world that had been his life. And maybe he knew, already, that there was something wrong.

The city will gather on Friday for a "celebration" of Ralph's life: to say goodbye to a man who gave everything he had despite, like the rest of us, the fears and the demons. Calgary will bid farewell to a son whose social and policy preferences were formed by what he honestly believed were the best interests of regular folk. Citizens and leaders will bid farewell in glowing terms to someone who deserved much, much more than that which he received in return. I hope to attend but I would like, if I could, to sit next to Martha and Henry.

May God rest Ralph's soul. And may He forgive the Maple Leaf Lounge.

Topics: Death

Peter Menzies

Peter Menzies is past CRTC vice chair of Telecom, a past publisher of the Calgary Herald and is a National Newspaper Award-winning journalist. He also advises tech companies but his views are always his own.

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