Friday, March 3, 2000

Alanna Mitchell

A woman of influence

Normally a private person, Colleen Klein declares herself a passionate advocate for children. Her behind-the-scenes work has helped shaped Alberta policy

Calgary — A year in the life of the Canadian family

Colleen Klein seems like the typical political wife.

She accompanies her husband, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, to his big speeches. She cheers him on when he wins elections. She's got a big smile and a kind word for everybody she meets.

She has been married to man who has been in public life for 20 years, since he became mayor of Calgary in 1980, and during that time, she has been an enigma.

She is an intensely private person who dislikes having her name in newspapers, and rarely gives interviews.

But now Mrs. Klein, 59, is edging cautiously into a piece of the spotlight that illuminates her famous husband. And it has become clear that she is anything but typical.

In an interview this week from her home in Calgary's southwest, she declared herself a passionate advocate for children who has been working for a decade behind the scenes to help shape policy.

In an era when the public is intently focused on family policy, Mrs. Klein allowed a glimpse into why someone in her position is working so hard to make Canada a better place for children.

She has survived a remarkable life marked with tragedy and discrimination, including an earlier marriage in which she was battered, the late realization that she is Métis and the loss of a brother in a drunk-driving accident.

It turned her into a fighter determined to do what she can to help the least powerful in society.

"When Ralph first got into provincial politics, I saw a lot that was missing," she said, adding that "I think any premier's wife who chooses can have an influence."

And she does. Traces of her fingerprints can be seen on the ground-breaking year-old law that attacks the users of underaged prostitutes as child abusers. She has helped push forward the province's efforts to educate would-be parents about the dangers of fetal alcohol abuse.

Last month, she publicly presented to her husband the report of a massive children's forum she led, replete with recommendations for how Alberta could support children better.

The principle underpinning the 100 or so recommendations is for the government to influence the early development of children for the better. That means, for example, identifying very young children who are at risk of developing poorly, making the schools better, supporting low-income children and making sure children don't go to school hungry.

Mrs. Klein has lobbied tirelessly — if quietly — among her husband's colleagues to persuade them that more needs to be done for children in this province.

She can see the fruit of her labours. Mr. Klein recently pledged that Alberta will implement a full children's agenda within three years, based on the children's forum report and another due out in a few weeks on children at risk. It's not yet clear what that agenda will look like.

But Iris Evans, recently appointed minister of the new Department of Children's Services, said one of the goals is to tackle problems before they emerge, what she calls "powerful prevention medicine."

In three or four years, it will look something like this: one-stop shopping for parents whose children have special needs, better support for children to develop within their own cultures, better preparation for children before they get to school, a network of help that latch-key kids can plug into.

And while Ms. Evans acknowledged that Alberta doesn't have the broad, hugely expensive set of children's programs that Quebec has, she said much of what is in store in wealthy Alberta will be cutting-edge.

Yet Mrs. Klein is far from finished her work. As long as her husband is Premier, she is determined to work on behalf of children.

She said she recently sent Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's wife, Aline Chrétien, a copy of the Alberta law on child prostitution. The goal is to get other advocates pressing other provinces to pass similar laws to stop what she calls the "scuzzies" from luring girls into prostitution.

"Our legislation hasn't solved the problem," Mrs. Klein said. "It's not in our back yard any more, but the problem exists in other places."

She's blithe about that fact that she is trying to enlist help from people outside the Progressive Conservative Party her husband represents. To her, the whole idea is to work together.

"When you're working with children, you park your ego and political colours at the door and get to work," she said.

Mrs. Klein feels compelled to put herself on the line. She traces some of that determination to make a difference back to 1970, when one of her two brothers was killed in a drunk-driving accident. At the time, she had two daughters, aged 4 and 10, and was married to a man who battered her.

That brother had often encouraged her to leave her husband, but she said she was stubborn and reluctant to admit that she had made a mistake. Once her brother died, at 22, everything changed.

"We buried my brother on Wednesday and I packed up and left on Friday," she said, adding that "I never, ever looked back."

She said she decided to live life for both herself and her lost brother. "You just gather up all that strength inside and go on," she said.

Mrs. Klein rarely talks about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her first husband. "It's a chapter in my book of life that is closed," she said. "I don't gain anything in life by dwelling on it."

She said she and Mr. Klein rarely discuss the abuse because it is such a painful topic. Instead, they focus on their own blended family (he has two children from his first marriage and they had a child together after they married in 1972) and their 10 grandchildren.

Mrs. Klein has had other struggles too. She was born to unmarried parents in 1940 and raised for a time by her single mother. Shortly after, her mother announced that she couldn't care for the child. Mrs. Klein's paternal grandmother adopted her. That grandmother died when Mrs. Klein was 4. Then an aunt took her over.

By the time she was 6, her father, who became an air force officer, had married and wanted her back. She was blessed with a loving stepmother, but also with a father who didn't want to talk about his heritage.

Mrs. Klein was certain part of that heritage was native and so were many of the children who teased her and discriminated against her because of it.

"Probably at that time, I would have been called an underdog," she said.

She began a decades-long search for her biological mother. Twenty-four years ago, she succeeded. Her mother confirmed Mrs. Klein's native heritage.

Mrs. Klein has since found records of her father's father, who married a native woman. She still burns with anger that the woman's name was not recorded, as if a native woman were an non-entity.

The whole search gave her strength. "What I had a sense of was being able to look in the mirror and say, 'Now you know who you are,' " she said.

She's planning to write down what she has learned of her family history — "good, bad or indifferent" — so that her own children and grandchildren will be spared such a search.

In the meantime, she is still trying to use whatever time she has left as the Premier's wife to cheer for the underdogs in society — the most vulnerable children.

"If you believe in something, stand tall and go out and be counted," she said.

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Created: November 9, 2000
Last modified: January 15, 2001
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