Peter Lougheed, the former Alberta premier and one of Canada’s most respected politicians, died Thursday night in Calgary. He was 84.

In a statement, Lougheed’s family said he died of natural causes.

“Although he was known to many for his contributions to Alberta and to Canada, his first dedication was to his family. He was a deeply caring and loving husband, father and grandfather,” the statement read. “We will miss him terribly.”

Reports that Lougheed was gravely ill first emerged Tuesday.

His family thanked Thursday the Alberta Health Services’ doctors and medical staff who cared for him.

They also thanked Albertans and Canadians for their outpouring of support.

“Today Canada lost a truly great man,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement, offering his condolences to the Lougheed family.

“Peter Lougheed was quite simply one of the most remarkable Canadians of his generation,” Harper said. “A master politician, gifted lawyer, professional-calibre athlete and philanthropist, the former premier was instrumental in laying the foundation for the robust economic success that his cherished province of Alberta enjoys today.”

Lougheed, who was a Calgary lawyer before he entered politics, ushered in more than 40 years of Progressive Conservative rule in Alberta when he became premier in 1971, ousting the Social Credit party.

He came from a political family – his grandfather, James, served in the Senate and in the cabinets of Conservative prime ministers Robert Borden and Arthur Meighen.

Lougheed led the PCs until 1985 and was widely credited with turning Alberta into a major economic player by seizing upon the province’s oil and natural gas resources.

He famously fought with then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau over the National Energy Program, which Albertans saw as an intrusion in their province’s affairs.

Trudeau’s son, Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, expressed his condolences on Twitter Thursday night, writing: “It is with tremendous sadness that we bid adieu to a giant of Canadian politics. Peter Lougheed was a man of vision, integrity, and heart.”

Lougheed created the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, which used natural resource royalties to fund infrastructure projects and services, and was often called the “father of modern Alberta.”

But even though he was willing to take on Ottawa to protect Alberta’s interests, Lougheed was known as a champion of national unity who played a crucial role in patriating the Canadian Constitution with an entrenched Charter of Rights in 1982.

This summer, the Institute for Research on Public Policy named Lougheed the best Canadian premier of the last four decades. He accepted the award at a June 6 ceremony in Calgary – his last major public appearance.

During last spring’s Alberta election, Lougheed publicly endorsed Premier Alison Redford, who has cited him as a role model and mentor.

Lougheed remained politically active after he left the premier’s office more than 25 years ago. He spoke out against Canada’s participation in the Kyoto accord, aimed at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, and talked about the need to encourage bilingualism throughout the country.

Over the years, Lougheed was given numerous awards and commendations. He was named to the Order of Canada in 1987 and the Alberta Order of Excellence in 1989.

Many also remember Lougheed as a football player during his university years in the 1950s. He played for the Golden Bears while at the University of Alberta and later for the Edmonton Eskimos.

After he married Jeanne Rogers in 1952, the couple moved to Massachusetts and Lougheed obtained an MBA from Harvard University before heading back to Alberta.

Lougheed is survived by his wife, their four children and seven grandchildren.

“Our father’s charitable interests were many, and included sports, health, education, our parks and public spaces and our culture,” his family said Thursday night. “The Banff Centre and the Lougheed House Conservation Society were particularly special to him.”

The family said it will hold a private service for Lougheed, with a public memorial to follow.

“In lieu of flowers, any donations or volunteer actions that support his charitable interests would continue to fulfill his hopes and vision for Alberta and Canada,” the family said.

With files from The Canadian Press