John Ostashek: 1936 2007

John Ostashek was a straight shooter. “You could go by his word,” said longtime friend and neighbour Ollie Wirth.

John Ostashek was a straight shooter.

“You could go by his word,” said longtime friend and neighbour Ollie Wirth.

“You didn’t need anything on paper — when he said something it was done.”

And this didn’t just apply to Ostashek’s politics.

Wirth remembered one afternoon when the two men were out on the lake.

“We caught a lot of big fish together, and we drank a lot of whiskey together too,” said Wirth.

That afternoon, Ostashek reeled in a 30-pounder.

Wirth was holding the net.

But the fish was too big.

“It was a normal-size net and two-thirds of the fish was hanging out,” said Wirth.

Just as Ostashek reached for the floundering fish, it fell out of the net.

“You should have heard the thunder,” said Wirth with a chuckle.

“I’m not going to lose me another one,” said Ostashek.

He was true to his word.

The next time the men went fishing, Ostashek showed up with “a net that was made for a whale,” said Wirth.

“I’ll never forget him walking out on the dock with that net,” he laughed.

A horse rancher, big-game outfitter, government leader, pilot and leader of the opposition, Ostashek lived a full life.

“He was a tough old codger,” said Wirth.

A couple of weeks ago, when his lungs started filling with liquid, Ostashek drove himself to the hospital.

“From there it was all downhill,” said Wirth.

Ostashek, 71, died on Sunday.

Several years ago, Ostashek was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, cancer of the white blood cells and underwent a stem-cell transplant in Alberta.

He knew it would only give him a few more years, maybe five, said Wirth.

“It’s just the end happened very quickly.”

It’s probably the way Ostashek would have wanted it, he added.

“He wouldn’t have wanted to be a burden on anybody.”

Wirth met Ostashek in the mid-‘80s, after moving north to take over Burwash Landing Resort.

The place had been empty all winter and Ostashek, who lived next door, insisted the Wirths stay with him.

“We started the heat and started cleaning up, and every night we went down to his ranch,” said Wirth.

“It was just like I knew him for 20 years.”

The men became fast friends.

“I helped him and he helped me a lot,” said Wirth.

The pair would go flying in the winter to check on Ostashek’s 70 head of horses.

They hunted and fished together.

The rancher helped Wirth fix machinery.

They shared equipment.

And when Ostashek got into politics, Wirth ran for him in Kluane.

“Ostashek would give you the shirt off his back if he liked you and you didn’t do him wrong,” said Wirth.

“He was a straight-shooting kind of guy.”

This came across in his politics.

“In the house he was never involved in any name-calling or showboating,” said NDP leader Todd Hardy, who sat in government when Ostashek became leader of the official opposition.

“I had a lot of respect for him, and liked to listen to him, even if I may not have agreed with him.”

Ostashek became government leader less than a year after becoming leader of the Yukon Party.

“He was very green,” said Hardy.

“But he learned a lot in a very short period of time and conducted himself very well.”

In the 1980s, before Ostashek was elected, the NDP government brought forward the Umbrella Final Agreement with Yukon First Nations.

The Conservatives were against it.

But when Ostashek got in, instead of putting up roadblocks, he signed off on the deal.

“It was extremely significant that John, as a conservative leader, recognized the need and importance of this agreement for the First Nations and the people of the Yukon,” said Hardy.

Even after he’d left politics, Hardy loved talking with Ostashek.

“Every time I ran into him we had great conversations,” he said.

Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell was struck by Ostashek’s honesty.

“He was a straightforward person,” said Mitchell.

“He had no big ego or sense of self-importance.

“And he had a tremendous command of the issues at hand.”

Ostashek also knew numbers.

A former banker, he knew his budget inside and out.

“He had a better grasp of the budget than anyone that’s ever been there,” said Doug Phillips, an MLA during both Ostashek’s terms.

“And he could recite (budget) figures right off the top of his head.”

Phillips was already in the party when Ostashek became its president.

And he was surprised when Ostashek vied for and won the leadership.

“John was pretty rough around the edges,” said Phillips.

“He was a real cowboy.

“And he had no big university background.”

But when he became government leader, there was this amazing transition, said Phillips.

“He became this great leader.”

Premier Dennis Fentie credits Ostashek for much of the territory’s economic growth.

“He brought the Yukon Party back into office,” said Fentie.

“And his strong economy contributed greatly to the social fabric of the territory.”

Today’s improved economy is Ostashek’s legacy, agreed Phillips.

“Many didn’t share Ostashek’s political vision,” said Phillips.

“They didn’t see the same vision of the Yukon down the road — they focused on immediate change.”

 “I really believe he started the way the Yukon is today,” added Wirth.

“He put it on the first step.”

“He gained industry’s trust because what he said would go. He didn’t change his mind halfway through.

“He stuck to his word.”

“When John made a commitment, he followed through,” added Phillips, also citing the importance of Ostashek’s handshakes.

“And he didn’t beat around the bush. You didn’t walk out of a meeting wondering if John was for or against something.”

“John liked a good argument, and he thought he won most of them,” he said.

But he wasn’t stubborn, said Wirth.

“With good reasoning you could change his mind.”

Ostashek made some tough political decisions, said Phillips, remembering the construction of the Whitehorse General Hospital.

It was a multi-million-dollar project and when the plans came in, Ostashek wasn’t satisfied.

It was expensive. The design had problems. And the operation and maintenance would have cost a fortune.

Although he knew there would be political fallout, Ostashek decided to do it right.

He had the hospital redesigned.

“His approach was, if he wouldn’t build it with his own money, why would he build it with taxpayers’?” said Phillips.

A self-made man, Ostashek also used his own money wisely.

Before starting up one of the largest outfitting businesses in the territory, he turned a $500 loan from his dad into a multi-million dollar outfitting business in Alberta.

“He also had a compassionate side, but he was reluctant to show it,” said Phillips.

“He was a cowboy.”