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Sorry, an Order of Canada for Alberta's Ralph Klein is not appropriate

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Former Alberta premier Ralph Klein

Does the kind of man who would call immigrants to Alberta from Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada "bums" and "creeps" deserve the Order of Canada?

Surely one would think not! But anything can happen in the weird and wacky world of Canada's "honours system," so one supposes that, with a noisy campaign under way by the corporate media and various far-right bloviators, an Order of Canada for Ralph "Katastrophe" Klein is a virtual inevitability.

Still, just because one has been the premier of a Canadian province shouldn't be an automatic ticket to a membership in the Order, nor has it been since the honour was established in 1967. But the Edmonton Journal seemed to think it ought to be, arguing in a recent editorial that since Klein got a lot of votes, he should therefore be welcomed to the Order. Klein biographer Don Martin made much the same argument.

One would also think that it would be more appropriate to use the Order to honour people who built things up, rather than those who tore them down, although in fairness the Order's criteria seem to be a little vague. The website of the Governor-General, the vice-regal personage who administers the Order, says it "recognizes a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation."

It's still a free country, so presumably what constitutes those qualities is open to a fairly broad range of public interpretation. Still, once he had left his job as the mayor of Calgary, where he contributed to the creation of the city's light-rail transit system, Klein didn't really do much but knock things down, although there are those who might try to make a case that some of the things he attacked needed attacking.

His famously offensive remarks about Canadians from more eastern regions of the country were also made while he was Calgary's Chief Magistrate, of course, not after he had ascended to the more august role of premier of an entire province.

Klein's principal modus operandi in provincial office seemed essentially to be to take a complex area of activity in which government was involved, throw all the cards in the air and see where they landed. Usually someone else had to pick them up and put them away.

Thus he left our health system in chaos -- unlike Tommy Douglas (Companion of the Order of Canada, 1981) who contributed mightily to creating the system of medicare from which all Canadians now benefit.

His government sold off publicly owned health facilities to private interests -- unlike Peter Lougheed (Companion of the Order of Canada, 1989) who can be credited with building a network of modern public hospitals throughout Alberta.

However, as the Journal rightly points out, Klein did give us each a payment big enough to purchase an iPod or a Walkman, and "finally erased the provincial debt."

Actually, if memory serves, Klein and his government announced several times that they had finally erased the debt. In reality, of course, they did no such thing. Klein merely pushed it off on another generation -- of politicians, and of all Albertans -- to deal with.

To lift a useful household analogy from Kevin Taft, the former Alberta Liberal Leader during the Klein era and the best premier Alberta never had, this is like refusing to repair your house for 30 years, then leaving it to your children with holes in the roof, vermin living under the front porch and rusted cars with no wheels and no engines sitting in the driveway, partly obscured by weeds. All Klein did was hand off the cost of maintaining Alberta to future generations -- for whom the repairs will be more expensive, more complicated and more stressful.

Someone should have a quiet word with former Premier Ed Stelmach, for example, and suss out what he really thinks about Klein being admitted to the Order. Of course, Stelmach is too courtly a politician to say aloud what's actually on his mind, but here's betting it wouldn't be all that complimentary if he were inclined to speak up.

After all, it was Stelmach who had to deal with the social debt and wear the infrastructure deficit that Klein's irresponsible government created and left behind. Arguably, along with declining petroleum prices and a recession caused in the back rooms of the banking industry, it was part of what crippled his premiership. It will fall to the rest of us to sort out the chaos in health care created by Klein, presumably in hopes of justifying widespread privatization, an achievement we will struggle for a long time to accomplish here in Alberta.

Klein's greatest claim to fame during his years as premier was that large numbers of Albertans said they thought he'd be a great guy with whom to have a beer. Ask the (sober) residents of an Edmonton men's homeless shelter how much fun Klein really was after he'd had a few.

Some of us would rather have a couple of brews with Steve Fonyo (Companion of the Order of Canada, 1985-2009). Fonyo had his failings, as do we all, but he personally raised $14 million to fight cancer, and he deserved and continues to deserve the honour for that effort.

Klein's current physical and mental infirmities are a tragedy with which any of us can feel sympathy and empathy. But he was a catastrophe as a premier, and hardly a unifying force in his treatment of Canadians from elsewhere. Awarding him this great honour -- as debased as it may now be owing to the continued presence in its ranks of certain unsavoury characters -- is not appropriate.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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