Former St. Albert MP Van De Walle dies
Former Legal MP Walter Van De Walle: 1922-2011
Wednesday, Apr 27, 2011 07:00 am
One of Legal’s most famous citizens has died.
Walter Henry Van De Walle died peacefully in St. Albert on April 21, according to his family. He was 88.
A former reeve and member of Parliament for Sturgeon County and St. Albert, Van De Walle was a well-known and active citizen in Legal for decades, having served with a bewildering number of community organizations.
His passing was the talk of the town earlier this week, says Legal Mayor Albert St. Jean.
“Walter always wanted to know what was going on,” he says, and was a regular presence at town council meetings even late in his life. “He was a good man, and he’s going to be missed.”
Van De Walle was born July 20, 1922 just west of St. Albert, says his eldest son, Ben, a town councillor in Morinville. The child of two Belgian immigrants, Van De Walle grew up on a farm near Big Lake playing with his neighbours, the Olivers.
“They went fishing every weekend,” Ben says, and would often skate, swim or boat on Big Lake — sometimes all on the same day.
Van De Walle moved with his parents to a new farm just south of Legal in 1944, Ben says, marrying Fernande Prefontaine in 1950. “We always had cows for fresh milk,” Ben recalls, and they once had about 700 pigs. Oats, wheat, barley, canola and alfalfa were all common sights in the fields.
When Van De Walle wasn’t hard at work in the fields, he spent his time playing cards or telling stories with his family. You could tell a great story was coming by the twinkle in his blue eyes, Ben says.
Van De Walle got involved in the farming community at an early age, Ben says, joining the Young Farmers’ Barley Club in 1944. He was an early advocate for canola products, serving as president of the Alberta Canola Growers Association in the 1970s, and started a provincial program that urged farmers to use herbicides more responsibly. These and other actions earned him a spot in the Alberta Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1985.
Van De Walle served 22 years on Sturgeon County council as councillor and reeve, winning his first election in 1958. It fell to him to oversee the maintenance of many gravel roads around Legal.
He also served on a long list of community groups in Legal, including the Surface Rights Association, Lions Club, chamber of commerce, senior citizens’ home, Co-Op, FÍte au Village committee, Men’s Speakers Club, Knights of Columbus, curling club and pee-wee hockey association (as coach).
Van De Walle took part in some 47 different offices and organizations in his life, according to Ben. “Dad was an early riser, and that was one of his gifts from the Creator: lots of energy to do lots of things.”
One of Van De Walle’s greatest dreams was to be his region’s MP, Ben says. That dream became reality in 1986 when he narrowly beat former Edmonton mayor Ivor Dent in a byelection for the Pembina riding, a district now split between Westlock-St. Paul and Edmonton-St. Albert. He held that riding for the Progressive Conservatives until 1993 when he stepped down from office.
Former Conservative MP John Williams says he knew Van De Walle well, having succeeded him as MP in 1993. “Walter was everybody’s friend. He always had a good word and always had a smile on his face.”
Van De Walle went to Ottawa determined to make a difference, Williams says, so he was disappointed when the party whip refused to put him on a committee. (All the spots were full.) Van De Walle took his case straight to then-prime minister Brian Mulroney, despite being just days into his new job. “Leave it with me,” Mulroney said.
“Thursday morning,” Williams says, “[Van De Walle] got the call: he was on two committees.”
Van De Walle put great emphasis on personal integrity, Williams says. “Maintaining that integrity and serving your people well has always got to be first and foremost in your mind,” he says. “That’s a lesson I took to heart.”
Even after he stepped down, Williams says Van De Walle was a frequent visitor to his office and an active member of the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians. “I found him to be an honourable gentlemen who served the constituents well.”
Van De Walle will be most remembered for his work bringing the alfalfa plant and heavy rail service to Legal, St. Jean says. His face will soon grace the town hall as part of a mural to the community’s most famous leaders.
Van De Walle is survived by his wife, Fernande, his five children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
His funeral will be held at St. Albert Catholic Church Thursday at 2 p.m. Call 780-458-2222 for details.