John Edzerza died on Friday, after a six-month struggle with leukemia.
The former cabinet minister and MLA for McIntyre-Takhini was 63.
“He had a big heart and lots of love,” said Edzerza’s youngest brother, Fred, 55. “He did a lot to help other people.”
Edzerza’s chief legacy is a healing camp now operated at Jackson Lake by the Kwanlin Dun First Nation. It’s a place for alcoholics and drug addicts to set their lives straight in a traditional setting.
Edzerza knew firsthand how tradition could trump addictions. Three decades ago he hit rock bottom as an alcoholic and was, for a spell, homeless.
But he turned his life around, returning to school to become an addictions councillor before launching into political life.
Fred helped turn his brother on to traditional sweat lodge ceremonies. Soon John had become an enthusiast, and, in the poplar smoke, found his new direction in life.
Helping others conquer their addictions only made sense for him, said Fred. “The only way you can help someone is if you’ve been there.”
A welder by trade, Edzerza returned to college at around age 50 to become an addictions counsellor.
He began his political career as a Kwanlin Dun councillor, then succeeded in becoming an MLA in 2002. Over the next four years, he’d serve as minister of Justice, Education and the Public Service Commission.
On the eve of a territorial election, he quit the Yukon Party to join the NDP. He remained there for a little more than two years before quitting to sit as an Independent.
In the autumn of 2009, Edzerza returned to the Yukon Party. Switching teams three times in three years cost him credibility.
But, in exchange for propping up Dennis Fentie’s government, Edzerza got what he wanted: the creation of the Jackson Lake camp, which opened in the summer of 2010.
But the camp’s future remains uncertain: in September, Kwanlin Dun officials warned they needed more money from the territory to keep the outfit open.
Edzerza also helped create the Individual Learning Centre, which aims to encourage school dropouts to return to their studies.
“John will be remembered for being a champion of our most vulnerable citizens and for being able to empathize with their struggles against addiction, violence and poverty,” said NDP Leader Liz Hanson in a statement. “John was deeply committed to the cause of accessible land-based treatment, a cause which I hope we can advance in the Yukon in John’s memory.”
Edzerza was of Tahltan descent. He was born in Lower Post and was raised in Atlin, before his family moved to Whitehorse, where he attended high school.
“I believe he had a unique political voice in that when he spoke it was obvious he valued his traditional Tahltan teachings and spirituality and I think that’s how people saw him,” said interim Liberal Leader Darius Elias.
He came from a family that was remarkably big, by today’s standards, being one of 20 siblings.
Edzerza divorced twice. He is survived by two children and four grandchildren.
“He left too soon,” said his brother Allen, 61. “He had so many dreams of what he wanted to do.
“John said to us he’d never give up, to his last breath.”
A celebration of Edzerza’s life will be held Sunday at 1 p.m. at Yukon College. A potlatch will be held afterwards, with details to be provided at the college ceremony.
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