Don Getty was tested as Alberta's premier in a period marked by a collapse in oil prices and economic malaise, but those remembering him on Friday said his political accomplishments are underrated.
Mr. Getty, who died Friday at the age of 82, served as premier from 1985 to 1992 – succeeding Peter Lougheed and leaving office as a scrappy Ralph Klein was on the rise.
Mr. Getty has long been associated with his government's successive provincial deficits as the price of oil tanked in the mid-1980s.
Mr. Getty was a natural leader and consensus builder who helped recognize Métis rights, pushed for constitutional reform and economic diversification and introduced the concept of Family Day in Canada.
"I describe him as a gentleman," said Jim Horsman, a close friend who served as a cabinet minister and deputy premier in his government.
"He was a competitor, both on the football field and in politics. But he was a team player," Mr. Horsman said. "We went through some difficult times, of course, with the price of oil collapsing."
An invitation to join the Edmonton Eskimos after graduation from the University of Western Ontario brought Mr. Getty and his wife Margaret west in 1955. In Edmonton, he would find his permanent home.
It would also become his political base. Mr. Getty was recruited into politics by Mr. Lougheed, another former Edmonton Eskimo player. Mr. Getty became part of an original group of six Progressive Conservative MLAs who made it into the legislature held by the Social Credit party.
When the Progressive Conservatives formed the government in 1971 – no less than a political revolution in Alberta at the time – Mr. Getty immediately made cabinet, first in federal and intergovernmental affairs, and then in the energy portfolio.
Conservative MP Ron Liepert, a former Alberta legislature reporter and then press secretary to Mr. Lougheed, said because Mr. Lougheed was such a strong premier and personality, he often received all of the credit for the announcements of the day. But as a cabinet minister, Mr. Getty was instrumental in many initiatives, including helping to establish the massive Syncrude oil sands plant and upgrader – an expensive undertaking that helped create the modern oil-sands industry. He became Alberta's chief negotiator in acrimonious energy pricing battles with Ottawa that would culminate in then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau's much-maligned National Energy Program of 1980.
In 1979, Mr. Getty stepped away from politics but was wooed back six years later when Mr. Lougheed decided to step down and the top job in Alberta politics came up for grabs.
Alberta's boom economy had already gone bust under Mr. Lougheed's watch. In November, 1985, the month Mr. Getty was sworn in, the province's unemployment rate stood at 9.6 per cent. Within six months, the price of crude had plunged more than 60 per cent.
Former provincial treasurer Jim Dinning said when Mr. Getty took over from Mr. Lougheed, he inherited an economy that was similar to today's.
Mr. Getty resisted the most dramatic spending cuts but pulled back on hospital and university budgets, and eliminated government jobs. Still, the province was saddled with a then-record $3.3-billion deficit in 1986. More deficits followed.
His government pumped billions of dollars into oil and forestry initiatives, new pulp mills, loans and incentives to encourage drilling – with some successes.
But he shouldered the blame for the failure of a number of government-backed businesses, the most costly of which was a $600-million loss on a cellular phone company called NovAtel Communications. The government was also heaped with blame when the Principal Group, a homegrown financial institution that specialized in real-estate financing, went bankrupt. The provincial government moved in and shut it down, but tens of thousands of investors were out millions.
He fought for the eventually unsuccessful Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, and a close relationship with premier Robert Bourassa helped get Quebec to the table during those constitutional talks, according to Mr. Horsman. Mr. Getty had a rocky relationship with prime minister Brian Mulroney. He backed Mr. Mulroney's bid for a free-trade deal with the United States but later railed against the imposition of the GST.
Mr. Getty held the first senator-in-waiting election in 1989. In that year's feisty vote, Mr. Getty's party hung onto its majority government but he lost his own Edmonton seat. He easily won a by-election in small-town Stettler, but the rumblings in the province and from the tire-kickers in his own party were growing louder.
There was still work to be done.
Mr. Getty's son Darin said his father was always proud that his idea for a long weekend in February called Family Day has now been adopted by a number of provinces across the country. Mr. Getty's government introduced the holiday, the first of its kind in Canada, to the province in 1990.
That year, in a move ahead of its time, his government also introduced the new Métis Settlement Act that set aside land and granted self-government to eight Métis settlements.
Two years later, after years of difficult governing and with polls showing the Liberals ahead, Mr. Getty resigned. In his quest for the PC leadership, Mr. Klein promised a dramatic rethink of the provincial government with cost-cutting and deficit reduction at its core. Through much of Mr. Klein's tenure, especially in the latter years, both oil and natural gas prices would rise.
With a report from The Canadian Press