A giant of a man with a double sized heart

Steve Cardiff was a big bear of a guy who wasn't afraid to cry. "Initially, I think he was embarrassed about it," said NDP Leader Liz Hanson. "But then he realized that's just who he was.

Steve Cardiff was a big bear of a guy who wasn’t afraid to cry.

“Initially, I think he was embarrassed about it,” said NDP Leader Liz Hanson. “But then he realized that’s just who he was.”

The Mount Lorne MLA died Wednesday in a head-on collision on the South Klondike Highway, just north of Lewes Lake Road.

RCMP got the call at 12:26 p.m.

It appears the 1998 S10 Chevy pickup Cardiff was driving crossed into the opposite lane and collided head on with a southbound transport truck, said RCMP Sgt. Don Rogers.

The transport trailer ended up in the southbound ditch while the pickup was bounced back onto the shoulder of the northbound lane, said Rogers.

Cardiff, 53, was thrown from the vehicle and was found dead.

The driver of the transport was taken to Whitehorse General Hospital with minor injuries.

At this point police do not know why Cardiff’s truck crossed into the opposite lane, said Rogers. “We don’t know the contributing factors.”

On Wednesday morning, when staff arrived at the NDP caucus office in the basement of the Yukon government building, there were already people waiting to pay their respects. For the next two days, mourners filed into the conference room to sign a book of condolences, writing impressions and memories.

Outside the building, Whitehorse’s homeless were cooking with a 25-pound tank of propane Cardiff dropped off for the tent city the day before he died.

When Helen Hollywood first pitched her tent on the lawn of the legislature, Cardiff was worried – not that it would make the Yukon government look bad. He was worried Hollywood didn’t have proper camping gear.

“So he went and got her a tarp and foam mats to sleep on, and that first night he was out there helping her put up the tarp in the rain,” said NDP chief of staff Peter Lesniak.

Later, when rowdies came and gave the tent city residents trouble, Cardiff got Hollywood a cellphone so she could call for help it if happened again.

“His heart was as big as the Yukon,” said Lesniak.

“And the tears and the emotion you saw in the legislature, that was all genuine.”

There was nothing phony about Cardiff, he said. “What you saw was what you got.”

Cardiff was “in politics for all the right reasons,” said Jim Cahill, who’d stopped by the caucus office to sign the book.

“And he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.”

Canvassing door-to-door during an election campaign, Cardiff ended up talking to a couple who were in the middle of putting in a retaining wall.

“But they’d let the cement sit too long,” said former NDP chief of staff Ken Bolton.

“So Steve rolled up his sleeves, pitched in and helped them for three to four hours when he should have been out knocking on doors.”

Cardiff wasn’t looking for “fanfare or political gain,” said Bolton. “That’s just the kind of guy he was.

“If there was a problem that needed addressing, he was there.”

He was also an excellent cook, said Bolton. “He didn’t spare the garlic, or the single malt when he was pouring.”

Whitehorse Boys and Girls Club executive director Dave Blottner remembers the first time he met Cardiff.

“We were outside sleeping on the steps of the Elijah Smith Building protesting in support of a youth shelter and Steve shows up with hot coffee and doughnuts at 1 a.m.,” he said.

Building a youth shelter was a big issue for Cardiff, said Lesniak.

“He wanted to assist these young people who were doing terrible things for accommodation. He just couldn’t understand, with the government’s huge budget, why they couldn’t find the relatively small amount needed to set up a youth shelter.”

Cardiff was constantly volunteering, said Hanson. “He did the things lots of us talk about but don’t do.”

“If I had one word to describe Steve, it would be ‘heart,’” said Bolton.

He wasn’t a polished politician and “didn’t always present himself in the most eloquent fashion, especially in the house,” he said. “But outside the spotlight he worked his buns off – if there was a problem, he’d race to find a solution.”

Hanson calls it Cardiff’s “inarticulate speech of the heart,” referencing a Van Morrison song.

“Steve would choke up, and you knew what he was going to say, but it took him awhile, then his heart would speak and it would come pouring out.”

Cardiff was “a giant-sized guy with a double giant-sized heart,” said longtime friend and NDP colleague Max Fraser.

“He wasn’t a politician who was in it for personal gain.”

Cardiff, who was born in Port Alberni, BC, moved to the Yukon in 1976 and worked as a sheet metal journeyman for more than 20 years.

He was a blue-collar worker who understood the need for jobs and a good quality of life, but he also believed in sustainable development that doesn’t compromise the health of the planet, said Fraser.

The first hints of Cardiff’s political passion materialized while he was working for Duncan’s Ltd.

“He’d be driving around in the truck with the other guys, and they’d want to listen to CHON or CKRW and Steve would want to tune in the legislature debate,” said Fraser.

“They thought he was off his rocker, I mean nobody listens to that stuff, not even the people that work there.”

Cardiff first dabbled in politics by working on NDP campaign signs. Then he got more involved, joining the party executive and eventually working on other peoples’ campaigns.

In 2002, “Steve finally took the plunge and was successful,” said Fraser. He was re-elected in 2006.

When former NDP leader Todd Hardy got cancer, Cardiff did a lot of heavy lifting.

“He was the Rock of Gibraltar,” said Lesniak.

As the only member of the NDP in the house, Cardiff cross-examined all the government ministers for every department.

“And he still knew all the issues so well that he didn’t even have to follow his notes,” said Lesniak.

“He read everything,” said former Yukon government executive council deputy minister John Walsh. “He worked hard and was well-prepared for debates.”

When Cardiff wasn’t in the house acting as a one-man party, he was travelling to a cancer lodge in Vancouver to be with Hardy.

“He was such a good friend to Todd,” said Louise Hardy. “And he was there for me after Todd died, too.”

Cardiff “gave everything he had to his work, constituents, family and friends,” said Hardy.

“He was so enthusiastic.”

Two months ago, Cardiff married Rachel Lewis. “And he just celebrated it,” said Hardy.

“He loved her so much, and was so excited.

“And he was so excited about the next election.”

Now, people are more determined than ever to win the election in the fall, said Fraser.

“We have big shoes to fill.”

The legislature was open on Thursday, although the gallery and seats were empty.

On Cardiff’s desk a single rose lay in front of a smiling picture of the MLA, his eyes sparkling.

“Steve was in politics for the right reasons,” said Hanson.

“He believed each of us have a responsibility to one another, and he talked to everybody with the same level of respect.”

If you saw Cardiff at an event, you knew there was someone there that would hear you, said Susie Ross, who’d come to sign the condolence book on Thursday afternoon.

“He was one of the few politicians you could trust.”

Cardiff spent a lot of time on the road meeting with constituents, it’s one of the occupational hazards of being a rural MLA, said longtime friend Al Pope.

“You cover a lot of road, and it’s tiring.”

The last time Pope saw Cardiff he was at the Mount Lorne community centre flipping burgers on Canada Day.

“Sometimes when politicians do these things it looks self-serving, to get their face in the public eye,” said Pope.

“But you never felt that way with Steve – you felt he genuinely enjoyed serving the community, and serving burgers.”

Sometimes, in the summer, Cardiff would go back to pounding sheet metal.

“As a tradesman, at the end of the day, you can stand back and see what you’ve done,” said longtime friend Doug Rody.

“As an MLA you don’t always see that.”

Cardiff wouldn’t have been ready to go, said a friend who stopped by to sign the book, but asked not to be named.

“He would have said, ‘I still have way too much to do.’

“But we have to remember there is so much he’s done already.”

Alex Furlong, who worked with Cardiff over the years on labour and union issues, had a long talk with him the day before he died.

Furlong was in the process of moving and Cardiff waxed philosophic, talking about the opportunities life presents.

“We talked about one door closing and another door opening,” said Furlong.

“Little did I know it would be our last conversation.”

In lieu of flowers, people are asked to donate to three local organizations in memory of Cardiff’s commitment: Blood Ties Four Directions, Angel’s Nest youth centre and Kaushee’s Place.

The NDP caucus office will be open late tonight and all are welcome to come sign the book and pay their respects.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com