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Time to wax philosophical about Ralph Klein and the Order of Canada

Ralph Klein, in his heyday

Now that the campaign to give the Order of Canada to Ralph Klein has all but met its goal, one wonders when the effort to hang the same gong on Jacques Parizeau will begin? Seriously! The former premier of Quebec meets the essential qualification.

For months now, a relentless campaign has been under way by a group of journalists, sometime Klein caucus mates and political allies, and other loyalists of the former Alberta premier to ensure that Klein is awarded the country's highest civilian honour.

Klein -- who is now 70 and was premier from 1992 to 2006 -- is seriously ailing and that has added to the pressure not to deny him this award during his lifetime. So Klein's supporters have now broken the rules (not that the rules matter very much for the well-connected in the Canada of Prime Minister Stephen Harper) and proclaimed that they have been privately informed the deal is done. It will be announced on or close to Canada Day, they say.

Klein deserves it, his supporters principally argue, because … because he used to be a premier.

At any rate, that Klein collected sufficient votes to become premier of Alberta is the foundation of the argument offered at various times by such journalists as Don Martin, Don Braid and the anonymous editorialist of the Edmonton Journal whose opinions have now evaporated from the Internet.

They also note that Klein, who was an undeniably popular political figure in this province, also balanced the budget, and sometimes they will remember too that he gave all us Alberta citizens enough cash to purchase a Sony Walkman or an iPod!

Understandably, Klein's supporters often gloss over some of the more divisive qualities of his time in politics, such as his famous remarks about eastern bums and creeps, made when he was mayor of Calgary in 1988, and his intoxicated late-night visit to a men's homeless shelter in 2001. Just as understandably, they defend Klein's more controversial policies -- for example, leaving the provincial health care system in a calamitous shambles that persists to this day -- as necessary and laudable.

Now, there was a day when merely having held office as a premier was clearly not sufficient to get someone an Order of Canada. But it would seem by the arguments we have heard over the past year or two and, more importantly that seem to have been heard in Ottawa, that those days are behind us.

Well, so be it! And perhaps Klein's supporters have a point when they say arguments he was a knocker-down of institutions rather than a builder-up of them are just sour grapes by people who disagreed with his policies while in office.

Which is why it seems not so outlandish that someone will soon argue that Parizeau, who managed after all to get elected premier of a majority government in a Canadian province just like Klein, should be awarded the Order of Canada too!

Thankfully for those here in English Canada likely to fly into a swivet at the thought of such a thing, one has the sense Parizeau would not be much interested in that particular honour. He has, after all, been declared a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec. (And before you start to sputter and kick, dear readers, remember that our sullen neo-Con prime minister's newest Quebec advisor, none other that former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, holds the same rank in the same order.)

What’s more -- unlike Parizeau, I guess -- when Mr. Klein received a manifesto urging sovereignty-association for Alberta from a gang of dangerous Western separatists, he had the good sense to file it where it belonged, in the trash bucket.

But all this history brings us to a serious point. Perhaps it's time to recognize what has been obvious all along about this Order of Canada to anyone who has been paying attention -- to wit, that it is now and ever shall be essentially political.

To the winners go the spoils and, in an era where conservatives dominate the government, a disproportionate number of conservatives are going to be awarded Orders of Canada. If Klein gets one too, well, there are certainly worse people who nowadays remain qualified to wear the pin of the Order in their lapel!

So let's not lose any sleep about this particular award, although we should make darned certain that at least one more former Conservative Alberta premier gets one too. To wit: surely the hapless Ed Stelmach deserves the honour! To him, after all, fell the political risk and the political cost of trying -- not always with much success -- to straighten out the catastrophic mess Klein left in Alberta's health care system, its crumbling infrastructure and its give-away petroleum royalty regime.

While we're at it, perhaps we should change the rules so that no one who has been awarded an Order of Canada can be stripped of the award -- no matter what his or her subsequent sins may be.

Remember Stephen Fonyo, who made a valuable contribution to Canadian life by raising money to fight cancer, which had taken his leg, yet who was stripped of his membership in the Order for flaws not so different from those that bedevilled Klein.

Fonyo's greatest failure, it can be seen now, was not having been the premier of a Canadian province.

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

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