Ed Stelmach leaves office, says trade pact the highlight

EDMONTON — Ed Stelmach charted his province through the peaks of an overheated economy and troughs of a global recession, but says his high point came when he put ink to paper to erase a historical injustice.

Retiring Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach is shown at his farm near Mundare

Retiring Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach is shown at his farm near Mundare

EDMONTON — Ed Stelmach charted his province through the peaks of an overheated economy and troughs of a global recession, but says his high point came when he put ink to paper to erase a historical injustice.

It was April 30, 2010, and the premiers of Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan met to sign off on the largest free-trade zone in Canada, representing 90 per cent of its oil and gas wealth.

Stelmach says he choked up when the New West Partnership was signed on Frederick Haultain’s desk at Government House in Regina.

“I was overwhelmed with emotion,” Stelmach said in an interview.

“I just said (to myself), ’Man, could you imagine Premier Haultain looking down? He must have said, ’We got it done, finally.”’

Stelmach is set to tender his resignation this weekend when members of the Progressive Conservative party vote Saturday to name his replacement as party leader and premier. He’ll remain premier until the replacement is sworn in. A date for that has not been set.

When he does leave office, the 60-year-old Stelmach says he will slide into retirement content to know that he helped fulfil Haultain’s dream of unifying Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Haultain was premier of the sprawling Northwest Territories at the turn of the last century, when Stelmach’s grandfather came from Ukraine to create a new life for his family.

In 1904 Haultain lobbied to have a large chunk of the territory between B.C. and Manitoba hived off to create a region called Buffalo with the capital in Regina.

But the federal Liberal government, wary of creating an economic power bloc to rival the central region — and not too thrilled with Haultain’s Conservative leanings — instead divided the region down the middle a year later.

Alberta and Saskatchewan were born.

Stelmach said the New West Partnership goes a long way to erasing that line.

“We’re not there totally,” he said. “But this New West Partnership is going to rival (the economic clout) of Ontario and Quebec.”

Stelmach bows out after five tumultuous years in the premier’s chair. There are no plans for now.

“The first year will be a cooling-off period.”

He and wife Marie will take their first two-week vacation since he took the top job. After that, he’ll look to reconnect with charity groups around his home near Mundare, east of Edmonton. There’s the Lions Club and the local hospital.

The 13th premier leaves office to mixed reviews. He’s credited as the man who inherited a sprawling infrastructure deficit from former premier Ralph Klein in 2006 and slowly began to make Alberta more livable.

Under Stelmach, schools were built for students who for years had been educated in rectangular portable containers. More hospitals and health centres were lifted off the drawing board. Ring roads were constructed. There were new overpasses and interchanges for car-clogged expressways. There was light rapid transit expansion in Edmonton and Calgary.

Stelmach’s elevation to the premier’s chair was a political Hail Mary. He came up the middle in a preferential ballot between two heavyweights to win the job.

But the blessing was also a curse. Stelmach was tagged “the accidental premier,” a rural northerner who couldn’t seem to win over Tories in Calgary.

He made mistakes.

His government’s tinkering with royalty rates created uncertainty and resentment in the oilpatch.

Stelmach came to power through his ability to network and build consensus, but his administration was criticized for top-down decision-making. Some backbenchers complained they were told to be seen and not heard. A right-wing rival — the Wildrose party — emerged as a genuine threat and three Tories crossed the floor to join it.

A caucus rebellion this January over continued deficit budgets reportedly prompted Stelmach to announce he was quitting.

Candidates for his job have campaigned on fixing what he did wrong: listening more to Albertans and avoiding herky-jerky spending that rides the waves of oil and gas.

There were personal slights. Stelmach was often depicted as a straw-sucking hayseed in Calgary editorial cartoons.

“Some of it was very harsh. It’s difficult on a family. I do have a tougher skin.”

He said there are no regrets and no rumination on how history will remember the kid from Lamont, Alta., who became premier.

“Albertans will determine that. Historians will determine that,” Stelmach said. “I’m comfortable knowing we left the province prepared for growth but also with cash in the bank.

“It was a good ride.”