Ralph Klein always tackled problems head-on. And he generally got the last word.
As a crusading journalist in Calgary, he took frequent and deliberate aim at city hall. After an improbable victory as mayor, there were numerous tussles with balky bureaucrats. As provincial environment minister, he had many memorable scraps over government policy and finally, as premier of Alberta, he battled countless interest groups and unions—he once joked that his “day was not complete without a protest or two, or three”—while bringing fiscal rectitude to the province. His repeated electoral successes, and defeat of Alberta’s deficit, are the stuff of Canadian political legend.
That same determination held for his personal trials as well: when his drinking became an issue in 2001, he promptly admitted he had a problem and quit cold turkey.
Now Ralph Klein is fighting a battle he cannot hope to win. He is slowly losing the ability to speak due to an insidious form of dementia. True to form, however, he and his family have not shied away from the fight. And that seems triumph enough.
Last week Klein and his wife, Colleen, publicly announced the former premier is suffering from frontotemporal dementia. Similar in effect to Alzheimer’s, this condition affects those parts of the brain that control behaviour and speech. In conversation with political columnist Don Braid of the Calgary Herald, Colleen explained how her husband can no longer drive a car or have meaningful conversations. His speech is limited to single sentences or simple phrases. “He’s not going to talk to the media. He’s incapable of that,” she observed.
Given his reputation as one of Canada’s most successful, and loquacious, politicians, it is a sad irony to see Klein silenced in this way. “He was a great communicator,” Rod Love, Klein’s long-time political aide, told the CBC. “So to see him now struggle occasionally to find the right word is obviously something we are not used to.”
As a politician, Klein’s vaunted communication skills stemmed from his genuine Everyman persona and his uncanny ability to read the public mood. His infamous “creeps and bums” comment about eastern Canadian migrants to Alberta from 1982 may have been considered obnoxious outside the province, but it accurately reflected how most Calgarians felt about rising crime rates in their city. It was the sort of folksy honesty that endeared him to voters.
As premier, Klein was often portrayed as a hard-edged right winger imposing a particular ideology on Albertans. In fact he was simply giving Albertans what they wanted. In the landmark 1993 election, for example, Klein’s Conservatives and the Alberta Liberals, under former Edmonton mayor Laurence Decore, both ran on identical fiscally conservative platforms, reflecting the fact that the vast majority of Alberta demanded a balanced budget. Klein delivered.
The measures he took to fight the deficit were frequently controversial: welfare was dramatically altered, liquor stores and vehicle registration offices were privatized, civil service wages were rolled back, health care and education spending was cut. But Klein was consistent in his message and ensured the pain was applied evenly (the MLA pension plan was also chopped). He turned the outrage into political advantage.
Many of Klein’s policies, in particular welfare reform, were later copied across the country. More significantly, he proved budget balancing could be a winning political strategy, at home and abroad. A book published ahead of last year’s British election titled How to Cut Public Spending (and still win an election) features a chapter explaining how Klein managed to do just that. And well before rising energy prices boosted Alberta’s revenues.
Now, in his sunset years, he has a final lesson to teach us all.
The Klein family received the formal diagnosis of his condition mere days before going public. Revealing their story so quickly and deliberately should be seen as a very courageous and generous move. It is no easy matter to admit to dementia, particularly for so public a figure. Approximately 500,000 Canadians have some form of the disease and that figure is expected to double in the coming generation, as our population ages. The stigma of dementia, and the burden of caring for those with it, is an issue that requires much greater attention. The Kleins’ announcement is an important milestone in that regard. Consider it a final public service in a long and distinguished career.
At this difficult time, we wish the best for Ralph, Colleen and the rest of the Klein family.