May 11, 2010 12:24 pm

Alberta honour capped Kwong’s ‘Canadian dream’

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Lt.-Gov. Norman Kwong once called his life story the “Canadian dream.”

The football star and successful businessman saw the rich irony of his 2005 appointment as the Queen’s representative in Alberta.

Decades earlier, his immig ra n t parents were not allowed to vote because of strict anti-Chinese legislation. Their right to place a ballot came in 1947, months after Kwong turned 18.

“They talk a lot about the American dream,” Kwong told reporters at the time of his swearing-in ceremony. “Well, my story has to be the Canadian dream. My father was an immigrant grocer who couldn’t even vote in Canada until his 40th year in Canada, and he has a son who becomes the lieutenant-governor of this province. There’s not many places where you can achieve that kind of success.”

On Monday, Kwong’s official portrait was unveiled at the provincial legislature, marking his place as Alberta’s 16th lieutenant-governor.

Looking back on his time in office last week, Kwong’s thoughts on being Alberta’s first Asian-Canadian lieutenant-governor were more muted.

“I’ve been the first Asian in a lot of things. . . . I’ve never really thought about it,” he said.

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“I guess probably I am (a role model) to some people. I’ve never made a point of trying to be one. I’ve just been myself through my life,” Kwong said.

“I just hope I carried on the tradition of lieutenant-governors in Alberta, and did the job credibly, and hopefully with no hiccups.”

Born in Calgary in 1929, Kwong’s Cantonese name was Lim Kwong Yew. But over the years — as he racked up Grey Cup wins first with the Calgary Stampeders and then the Edmonton Eskimos — Kwong came to be known to Albertans as “Normie” and the “China Clipper.”

In 1948, the 18-year-old Stampeder was not only the Canadian Football League’s first Asian player, he was the youngest player on a championship-winning team.

Following his career in football, Kwong made his fortune in real estate. By 1989, as part-owner of the Calgary Flames, Kwong would become the first Canadian to win both the Grey and Stanley Cups.

He was named to the Order of Canada in 1998, and in 2005 he was appointed Alberta’s lieutenant-governor by then-prime minister Paul Martin.

On Monday, politicians recognized Kwong’s ability to bring a sense of dignity to the office representing the Queen in Alberta, balanced with a keen sense of humour.

“His honour brought warmth, he brought dignity to the post of (lieutenant) governor, as well as (a) playful spirit,” Premier Ed Stelmach said.

He described Kwong and his wife Mary as tireless promoters of Alberta, seniors, citizen engagement and multiculturalism.

Liberal Leader David Swann applauded Kwong’s outstanding service to the province and people of Alberta.

Back in Calgary, Doug Mitchell, a co-owner of the Stampeders and longtime friend of Kwong and his wife, said he’s talked extensively with him during his time as lieutenant-governor and found he thoroughly enjoyed the job.

Kwong’s attributes — a family man, former athlete and past businessman — allowed him to relate to all sorts of people in every corner of the province, he explained

“No matter where he went, he always made people feel comfortable,” Mitchell said. “They always felt Normie Kwong was one of them. I think he was loved and endeared by everybody he came into contact with.”

Mitchell believes the outgoing lieutenant-governor brought a “great deal of dignity” to the office, yet “turned out to be a man of the people.”

Mayor Dave Bronconnier argued Kwong and his wife brought a lot of humility and fun to the office, not to mention a good portion of “elegance and grace.”

“Normie loves to have a laugh. He likes people to call him Normie,” Bronconnier said. “He has served our province and our country very well . . . he has served our city with distinction.”

Since 1905, the lieutenant-governor’s office has been dominated by men and women well into their 60s and 70s with long careers in some aspect of community service. But at the time of his appointment, then 75 years old, Kwong was the oldest lieutenant-governor to date.

Acknowledging his age, Kwong said he wished to promote healthy living among Albertans.

In fact, one of his only political gaffes in five years came soon after his appointment, when he was asked about a potential provincewide smoking ban. In the name of promoting good health, Kwong sided against then-premier Ralph Klein and in favour of the ban, noting it might discourage young people from picking up smoking.

As formal head of state, no law presented by Alberta MLAs in the past five years passed without Kwong’s final assent.

But, he said, he never took up issues directly with premiers Klein or Stelmach.

“We feel that the legislature looks after the province better than we know about, so we let them do their business,” he said during an interview that included his wife.

The pair joked they were unaware of all the work attached to the job when Paul Martin offered the appointment — they didn’t know they would need speech-writers for the more than 300 speaking engagements they had each year, and they didn’t know the protocols in place, like not opening doors for themselves.

“The first year was not difficult, but it was new to us,” Mary Kwong said. “We’re still ourselves, but there’s protocols. That’s all that’s different. We got used to it.”

During Monday’s portrait unveiling, Norman Kwong made a point of thanking staff members for their help and friendship over the years.

“Mary and I have had the time of our lives,” he said, adding, “She had the time of her life because she didn’t have to cook for me.”

The couple spent much of last week tying up loose ends at their home in Edmonton, in preparation for moving back to Calgary full-time.

“It’ll be pleasant for me to go home, and see (my) grand-kids,” he said.

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Life And Times Of Norman Kwong

– Born in Calgary in 1929 to Chinese immigrant grocers;

– Played three years as a fullback for the Calgary Stampeders, then 10 years for the Edmonton Eskimos;

– Part of the ownership group that brought the Flames to Calgary from Atlanta in 1980;

– Awarded the Order of Canada in 1998;

– Became Alberta’s 16th lieutenant-governor Jan. 20, 2005.

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