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A Family Day toast to Don Getty, who is entitled to our gratitude for one thing at least

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Premier Don Getty while in office. Image: Government of Alberta.

The winters around here are long. Even with social media Canadians need a February holiday.

Come to think of it, given what the internet has turned into in the few years since it arrived on the scene with such promise, we need a February long weekend even more than we did in the dark ages before the angry epoch of social media.

So thank God for small favours … and for Don Getty!

As favours go, Getty, the 11th premier of Alberta, was a relatively small one. Just the same, he gets a worse rap than he deserved, and the best-known small favour he did us was one for the ages!

To wit, 30 years ago today, thanks to Getty and his Progressive Conservative government, Albertans celebrated their first Family Day statutory holiday.

The year before, during the run-up to a provincial election, Getty's Progressive Conservative government announced in its pre-vote throne speech that henceforth and forevermore Alberta would mark Family Day on the third Monday of every February.

The initial reviews were not stellar. Indeed, a great howl of lamentation and indignation rose up from all the usual quarters -- the restaurant industry in particular -- about how a February holiday would wreck productivity, cost them untold millions that could never be recouped and generally persuade the lazy slackers who were their employees to grow even lazier and slacker. Nothing of the sort happened, of course.

Ever since, though, killjoys of both the right and left have been darkly carping that the former star professional football quarterback only cooked up the idea to distract voters from the fact his son was in trouble with the law, accused at the time of trying to sell an ounce* of cocaine to an undercover narc in an Edmonton motel room.

Yadda yadda. Whatever.

Eventually, 17 years later, NDP-led Saskatchewan finally climbed aboard the Family Day train, and a year after that, Ontario joined the fun. While we're on the joint topics of Ontario and illegal drugs, note that, at the time, that province was led by a Liberal, not a former drug dealer turned Conservative politician.

Liberals in New Brunswick eventually followed suit, marking the occasion as a stat holiday for the first time in 2018.

I can't say I was in any of those places at the times in question, but readers may take it as given that the same sorts of people said the same sorts of thing -- and blamed New Democrats and Liberals as a fillip.

"Liberals" in British Columbia, who are really conservatives, created a February holiday with the same name starting in 2013, but decided to hold it on the second Monday, perhaps as a sop to the usual whiners at the chamber of commerce, seeing as the third Monday is also Presidents Day south of the Medicine Line and thus supposedly a big day for tourism in the fleshpots of Vancouver Island and the Kootenays.

The Presidents Day national statutory holiday, pegged approximately to George Washington's February 22 birthday, has been officially enjoyed by Americans on the third Monday of February since 1968, but was marked in U.S. federal offices as Washington's birthday at least since 1885.

When B.C.'s NDP government announced it was finally getting with the program, the announcement happened within two days of the opening shots in that province's enduring pipeline spat with Alberta. That led to NDP premier Rachel Notley's short-lived wine boycott. Nevertheless, Family Day harmonization seems to have survived the disharmony -- so far.

Yukon, by the way, did this in 1976 before any province. However, not being a province and at the time still having its territorial name preceded by the only definite article in the English Language, not to mention self-referentially calling the occasion Yukon Heritage Day, it gets no credit and no respect. Sorry about that, Yukon!

Judging from the debate in the Alberta legislature back in 1990, New Democrats and the then-still-extant Alberta Liberal caucus were not particularly supportive.

Liberal leader Laurence Decore, leader of the opposition at the time, complained that the February holiday wouldn't "excite and energize and stimulate Albertans." He was wrong about that, naturally.

Bob Hawkesworth, then the NDP MLA for Calgary-Mountain View, lamented in the legislature that one Family Day in February wasn't much of a consolation for the loss of a day off every week when working people could spent time with their families. Hawkesworth was referring to Sunday, the Christian sabbath, for those of you not old enough to remember when commercial establishments had to be closed on that day and you couldn't get an alcoholic beverage other than sacramental wine to save your soul.

By 1989, when Hawkesworth was carrying on, however, that train had already left the station on the transcontinental tracks and a statutory holiday in February is still better than no statutory holiday in February!

Still, a year later as the first Family Day neared, crotchety Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid was still carping about the idea, blaming it on "couch potatoes in the legislature who want another holiday." OK, proto-boomer.

Unfortunately, Getty's greatest achievement off the gridiron, unless you count not letting the premier of Newfoundland leave the room when he wanted to, was marred by an error of nearly equal magnitude.

To wit, Getty responded to the incessant whinging of the fast-food bosses about how their costs were bound to increase by downgrading another stat holiday, Heritage Day. The first Monday of August, which had been an official holiday in this province since 1974, was busted back to a mere civic holiday to download the complaints about overtime costs onto municipalities.

If our former Alberta NDP government had wanted a project that would have ensured the eternal gratitude of most Albertans, come what may, it should have returned the August holiday to statutory status.

Of course they ignored your blogger's advice. With the mean-spirited Jason Kenney at the helm pursuing his wage-reduction strategy and taking direction from Restaurants Canada and its ilk we can forget about that. Pity.

Getty was inveigled into politics by his former teammate on the Canadian Football League's Edmonton franchise, Peter Lougheed, and was premier of Alberta from November 1985 to December 1992. The patrician Lougheed may not have been much of an athlete compared to Getty, playing two years as an undistinguished defensive back starting in 1950, but he was a far bigger star in politics.

Getty, in contrast, passed the football more than 8,000 yards* in his career and led the Edmonton team (whose name shall not be mentioned here until they change it) to two Grey Cups.

Getty served Lougheed as intergovernmental affairs minister and energy minister, then prudently stepped out of politics in 1979. Not long after that, in the summer of 1981, a recession accompanied by plummeting oil prices hit Alberta, resulting in a situation not unlike the province's current economic plight.

Lougheed stepped down in 1985. Getty was tempted once more unto the breach that same year. It was a fateful decision, because whatever timing magic he possessed on the gridiron deserted him, creating the opportunity for the neoliberal takeover that scars Alberta and Canada to this day.

Getty died in February 2016 at the age of 82, entitled to our gratitude for one thing at least.

* An ounce is an archaic measurement of weight and mass, equivalent to 437.5 grains. It is normally abbreviated oz., which makes more sense than the standard abbreviation for a pound, another archaic measure until you cross the 49th Parallel in a southerly direction. The abbreviation for pound is lb., from the first word of the Latin, libra pondo, "pound weight." So don't say you never learn anything useful by reading AlbertaPolitics.ca. A yard? … Never mind.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta

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