Peter Lougheed still commands respect

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Sun Media, Friday, July 16, 2010

Peter Lougheed may be the only man in Canada who can work a room sitting down.

At the Brand Room, as the directors’ lounge at the Calgary Stampede is called, the former Alberta premier was holding court from a large leather chair in front of a huge stone fireplace.

For as long as Lougheed and his family were having dinner at a table nearby, other guests respected their privacy. The moment he moved from the dining area to the lounge, they lined up to say hello, shake his hand, and pay tribute. With Lougheed, for his remarkable life and legacy, honour is always due.

“It’s amazing,” said his wife, Jeanne Lougheed, “how much people still want to meet him, and how much he still enjoys it.”

“Maybe,” she was told, “they just want to say thanks for everything he did.”

And that was a lot. Any list of great Canadian premiers of the last century has Lougheed at the very top. And it’s not because he founded a political dynasty that’s been in office in Alberta since 1971. It isn’t even because, as the price of oil tripled and tripled again in the 1970s, he was known as the sheik of Saudi Alberta. It’s because of his leadership—in his four terms in government, from 1971 to 1985, he staunchly defended Alberta’s interests, while never forsaking the national interest.

When Pierre Trudeau invaded the provincial jurisdiction of natural resources with the National Energy Program in 1980, Lougheed stood in his way, and invoked the constitutional division of powers, famously saying the feds weren’t just on his front porch, but in his living room.

When Trudeau moved to unilaterally repatriate the Constitution in 1981, Lougheed led the Gang of Eight dissenting provinces who fought him until they won the “7/50” amending formula we have today, along with the notwithstanding clause that was the dealmaker in the Charter of Rights.

As wealthy as Alberta became on his watch, he knew about rainy days and created the Heritage Trust Fund from the province’s oil and gas revenues. And he built the infrastructure of a modern state—the roads, schools, universities and hospitals, some of which successive governments have named for him.

And then, in 1985, he left, and joined the family law practice of Bennett Jones, founded by his grandfather Sen. James Lougheed, who brought a future prime minister, R.B. Bennett, into the firm.

Not all former first ministers have great post-political careers, but Lougheed has thrived not only as a rainmaker for his national firm, but as an elder statesman who instinctively understands that a former leader’s influence is measured in inverse proportion to how often he speaks up. A quarter century after leaving office, he can still make headlines any time he chooses, he just chooses not to most of the time. But when he does, Alberta listens.

At 81, Lougheed has the slower gait of his years. But he still has the steely blue eyes and the trademark timbre in his voice.

“How are you doing, Mr. Premier?” I asked.

“Just fine,” he replied. “I was told you were coming for Stampede.”

As he was leaving, he passed by the table he had relinquished to a former member of his staff and his guests.

“I gave up this table for you,” he said with a laugh.

Thank you, sir. For the table, to be sure. But for your leadership and love of province and country.

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