Tough Boots to Fill

Not that long ago while doing some consulting work in a small town in rural Alberta, a colleague and I watched curiously as all traffic stopped and pulled over for what we initially thought was some kind of small parade or celebration.

As it turns out, it was a celebration, albeit a funeral procession celebrating the life of a cowboy.

It was a tip of the hat to funerals of the Old West that were often simple and fitting tributes to cowboys who owned little but died with their boots on.

In addition to a wagon carrying the coffin, the funeral convoy included a riderless horse with a pair of cowboy boots placed backwards in the stirrups. It was a poignant and symbolic gesture.

I thought of that tradition this past week as Canada lost two of their own unforgettable “cowboys” — the outspoken former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, and the maverick Peter Kormos, veteran NDP Member of Parliament and Niagara Region Councillor.

I first met Kormos many years ago when to my surprise I was selected to serve on a jury. While curious and receptive to seeing the judicial system in action, I wasn’t quite prepared for his energy and charisma — not to mention his youthful good looks.

With Kormos serving as the defense attorney, the trial involved a young man who was charged with drug trafficking. While the evidence was primarily circumstantial, it was substantial and validated by undercover police officers who provided credible testimony. 

But, as became evident throughout his career, Kormos rose to the challenge of serving as a staunch defender of the underdog, subsequently serving up our jury a giant dose of doubt.

While in hindsight it should have been clear the defendant was guilty, the jury initially couldn’t reach a verdict and we ended up being sequestered at a hotel overnight.

Ultimately, after continuing to carefully review the evidence the next day, we did find him guilty.

While many would have found the trial to have been a frustrating experience, I was always grateful that Kormos had been the one who truly taught me about our judicial system. I was able to leave that trial knowing that all the evidence and possibilities had been thoroughly examined from every possible angle by twelve conscientious jurors. As a result, the defendant had been given a fair hearing and the decision was just. 

When Kormos did move on to provincial politics, he continued to serve as a staunch defender of fairness and one who spoke up for those who might not otherwise have a chance to be heard.

In the end, perhaps that is the legacy of the man. He not only fought for the underdog, he upheld the integrity of our democratic system.

Ralph Klein was another politician who never failed to stand up and fight for what he believed.   

A former journalist whose first entry into politics was an audacious and successful run at becoming the Mayor of Calgary, he ultimately went on to serve an unprecedented four terms as Premier of the Province of Alberta.

His improbable rise from high school drop out to successful politician was due in large part to his authenticity, practical nature, and forthright approach. 

Under his leadership as Conservative Premier, he took a tough stance on spending and eliminated Alberta’s $23 billion debt.

While his directness was also known to get him into trouble, it garnered unprecedented support from the public who valued his honesty and his irreverence as well as his love for Canada. His “common touch” and disarming candor, in combination with a bonafide love of people, resulted in the public being readily able to forgive his imperfections, booze and all.

Both Kormos and Klein not only had an unprecedented ability to communicate and connect with Canadians, they shared a pride in their working-class roots. They were the antithesis of slick, packaged, and polished politicians and were instead the rare real-deal who said what they meant, and meant what they said. 

As such, Kormos and Klein have left an indelible impression as well as two pairs of cowboy boots that will be tough ones to fill.

Posted on 03-31-13

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