08/01/2011 10:00 EDT | Updated 10/01/2011 05:12 EDT

Man reflects on life decade after encounter with Ralph Klein at homeless shelter

EDMONTON - When Mark Shea met Ralph Klein at a homeless shelter a decade ago, he vowed that the premier's stinging, slurred rant would not define him.

Shea was the homeless man who blew the whistle on Klein's infamous midnight visit to the Herb Jamieson Centre in Edmonton in December 2001. Shea telephoned a newspaper to break the story that the popular premier had called some residents bums, yelled at them to get jobs and thrown money at their feet.

In the days that followed, "King Ralph" wiped away tears in front of news cameras, admitted he had a drinking problem and promised to cut back on the bottle to save his health. It was a different picture from the one many in Alberta had of a popular leader whose folksy charm overshadowed his missteps and who consistently led his Progressive Conservatives to landslide majorities.

Shea says the encounter changed his life, too.

"It made me strive to succeed," says Shea, now 36, employed and no longer homeless.

"I look back at it and basically laugh about it. For me that was more of a challenge ... to prove not everybody who goes there is a bum and should be labelled. You can do anything you want as long as you try to do it."

Shea, who had been on the streets since he was 15, had just finished a late shift pumping gas and was looking for a warm bed. Offended by Klein's words and antics, he left the shelter for good and spent the next 10 years travelling across the country. He went home to Halifax and made pit stops in Montreal and Fort McMurray, Alta.

He worked various jobs — installing kitchen cabinets, hauling auto parts, selling fish. And he took university-level math and accounting classes to upgrade his Grade 10 education.

He returned to Edmonton a few years ago, moved into a comfortable apartment with his girlfriend and witnessed the birth of their daughter. The couple is planning a small wedding next year.

"It was the one thing I pretty much wanted for 10 years. I wanted a family of my own," says Shea, cradling two-year-old Ivy in his arms and dancing around his living room to a song by Great Big Sea. The smiling toddler has her father's thick eyelashes.

"I look forward to each and every day when I come home and she's standing there looking at me."

Hanging on the kitchen wall next to the girl's crayon artwork is the blue uniform Shea wears for his job as a commissionaire at a college. The permanent job comes with a pension, life insurance and health benefits. Shea also volunteers with two choirs, cooks roast beef for Sunday night dinner and tosses out the occasional Acadian French phrase in the hope his daughter will pick it up.

Life has never been better, says Shea.

He saw Klein again about three years ago at the Baccarat Casino. Retired from politics, Klein was sitting at a blackjack table across the room. Shea was playing two-cent slots.

"I didn't really care to talk to him."

Shea says he wishes Klein well but really doesn't want to have anything to do with him.

"No hard feelings."

Klein claimed he wasn't drunk the night he stopped at the shelter to see first-hand the plight of the homeless. But he later revealed his boozing had taken a toll on his ability to carry out his duties as premier and he considered resigning.

He remained in office until December 2006. About that time, he publicly stated he would have been dead if he'd kept up his heavy drinking.

Earlier this year, when his public appearances became less frequent, it was revealed the 68-year-old former premier is suffering from dementia.

Friend and long-time chief of staff, Rod Love, drove Klein to an appointment earlier this week. He's not the "great communicator of old," but he's managing well.

Love says Klein has never talked much about that night at the homeless shelter. But it obviously made him reflect about how he ended up there, because he never really drank again.

In the end, it's a happy story for everyone, Love says.

"You get a homeless guy who turned his life around and Mr. Klein quit drinking. It turned out for the better."

"Ralph Klein was always a real good friend of Hope Mission," says Denis Meier, spokesman for the charity that runs the Herb Jamieson Centre. "I love the guy."

Meier says the encounter brought the shelter attention and much has changed in the last decade. The facility now provides three meals a day, has expanded to house another 340 men in a building across the street and has opened a 44-suite apartment building for men in recovery.

"We're helping way more people."

David Garber says that, like everyone in the country, he heard about Klein's visit to the shelter. But he had no idea Shea was the one who went to the media with the story.

Garber, conductor of the Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus, was working with the Pro Cora Canada choir when he met Shea panhandling on a downtown street six winters ago. Shea asked for change to do his laundry, the men got to chatting and Shea offered to volunteer for the singing group.

Garber was struck by Shea's intelligence and math skills. And Shea became the choir's administrative assistant for a couple of years.

"He almost slipped completely through the cracks," says Garber, who considers Shea one of his closest friends.