CALGARY - An emotional Peter Lougheed appealed for national unity Wednesday as he was feted for being Canada's best premier of the last 40 years.
"I've said on many occasions that I'm a Canadian before an Albertan. Don't take that comment lightly," Lougheed, 83, said in a speech to about 300 people attending the gala in his honour hosted by the Institute for Research on Public Policy.
"That's a very important view to have and that's been our theme all along here."
Lougheed is considered the father of Alberta's Progressive Conservative dynasty and served as premier from 1971 to 1986.
His battles with former prime minister Pierre Trudeau over Alberta's oil revenues and the National Energy Program were legendary, sparking the famous bumper sticker reading: "Let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark."
But the two men developed a grudging friendship and worked together on constitutional reform, the first item atop Lougheed's personal list of accomplishments.
"Nothing, really, is as important as that for a country like ours," he said. "It's really important in my scheme of things that we have the constitution that protects the rights of the provinces."
Other items on Lougheed's list included development of the oilsands and establishment of the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund.
He offered continued encouragement to Premier Alison Redford, who he publicly endorsed in the last election to continue her efforts to get to know Canada's premiers and to work toward increased cooperation with the other provinces.
"Let's keep building. Let's keep working with Alison and her government. Let's have it, though, with a background of a strong and united Canada. My heart is right there. My whole life has been a strong and united Canada."
Redford described Lougheed as a great leader for the past 40 years and one of her own personal role models.
"My first and my most powerful inspiration was here at home in Alberta," she recalled. "I was seven years old when Peter Lougheed's Progressive Conservative government defeated Social Credit, launching a political dynasty that I have been honoured to be part of."
Lougheed intervened at a point in the last Alberta election campaign when the Redford campaign was struggling. His public endorsement is believed to have contributed to her win.
Redford said Lougheed has never viewed Alberta's success in a selfish manner.
"You didn't see Alberta succeeding ... at the expense of the rest of Canada," she told him. "You saw your province as a proud and contributing member of the Canadian family in which all members needed to succeed together."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former prime minister Brian Mulroney gave their tributes via video.
Harper said Lougheed became Alberta's premier at a pivotal time in the province's history.
"It emcompassed the best of times where the burgeoning energy industry brought unprecedented growth in the province but they were also the worst of times when disgraceful and ill-conceived federal policies brought ruin," said Harper to cheers from the audience.
"While your legacy was already assured, the decades since have led to a national understanding of your contribution to Canadian public life."
Mulroney was equally effusive with his praise.
"Peter Lougheed was, in many ways, in a class by himself," said Mulroney. "I would say Peter Lougheed has had a brilliant and unique career that warrants that type of praise and appreciation and admiration."
Lougheed was chosen top premier by a jury of 30 individuals for the institute's magazine "Policy Options."
"The jury's verdict came back loud and clear — Peter Lougheed in a landslide," said editor-in-chief L. Ian MacDonald.
"It wasn't even close. It was like watching Secretariat win the Belmont by 31 lengths."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly said Lougheed had been named Alberta's best premier, when the designation is actually a national one