Former Yukon member of Parliament and deputy prime minister Erik Nielsen died suddenly last night at his home in Kelowna at the age of 86.
In three decades of service as MP for the Yukon, Nielsen rose through the party ranks of the Progressive Conservatives, eventually becoming deputy prime minister under Brian Mulroney between 1984 and 1986.
“I think he was the one Yukoner that most Canadians had heard about — the rest of us don’t make the headlines,” said Flo Whyard, author and former editor of the Whitehorse Star.
“He’s the best man we’ve ever had,” she added.
“There’s very few members of parliament that have served as long as he did — he’s one of the few Canadians to have had such a long effect on Canadian politics, and it’s great that he happened to be a Yukoner,” said Larry Bagnell, the current Yukon MP.
“When someone from the Yukon rises all the way through 308 MPs to become deputy prime minister, it gives a lot of importance to Yukon issues at the cabinet table.”
A decorated pilot with the RCAF during the Second World War, Nielsen’s war experience gave him a fighting spirit that he used tirelessly to campaign for increased federal recognition of the Yukon, said Whyard.
“He was Mr. Yukon for years on the national scene and if the Yukon needed anything, he went out and fought for it,” she said.
“He really put the Yukon on the map in a way that made Ottawa cognizant of its farthest riding,” said Bagnell.
Through the years between 1958 and 1962, during the Conservative majority under John Diefenbaker, the Yukon saw a flurry of road improvements and upgrades, including construction of the Dempster Highway, the Skagway road and upgrades to the Alaska and Haines highways.
As well, during that time, Nielsen made the first federal proposal to allow a Senate seat for both the Yukon and the NWT.
His flying skills often came in handy while campaigning through the territory’s far-flung communities.
Throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Yukoners knew their MP was arriving, when they saw his Cessna or Beechcraft swoop down for a landing at a local airport.
In the 1960s, Nielsen revealed a string of Liberal scandals that would prompt the 1965 federal election.
His doggedness earned him the nickname, “Hawk of the House.”
Throughout his career, Nielsen was known for his unique straightforwardness.
“He was very pretty direct, pretty blunt when he spoke on issues … you might not like what he had to say or his opinion on things, but he didn’t mince any words or split any hairs,” said his son Rick.
“A lot of people couldn’t stand him because he was so abrupt and so impatient … he just went ahead and did what had to be done,” said Whyard.
His 1989 memoir, The House is not a Home, has been lauded for its directness regarding his public and private life.
Following his retirement from politics in 1987, Nielsen served a stint with the National Transportation Agency before becoming a distributor and promoter of solar-powered cars.
He is survived by his sons Rick, Lee Scott, daughter Roxanne, wife Shelley and his brother, actor Leslie Nielsen.