To Liberals he was a fearsome opponent.
To Progressive Conservatives he was a ruthless ally.
But to the people of Old Crow, Erik Nielsen was a close and trusted ally.
When Nielsen passed away at his Kelowna home on September 4, to the elders of Old Crow, “it was like losing a longtime friend,” said Joe Linklater, chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin.
Erik Nielsen entered federal politics at a time when First Nation rights differed dramatically from those of other Canadians.
In Old Crow, the disparity was clear to the young MP.
“He went up there, he made friends and he saw what he considered to be severe injustices — in that the people up there simply weren’t treated equally and weren’t living up to the standards that would be acceptable to most Canadians,” said Willard Phelps, former Yukon premier.
“And he went to bat for them in a very big way,” he added.
Soon after coming to power, Nielsen became a strong proponent for the native vote.
“We pay lip service to the idea of accepting Indians as fellow citizens, but government at all levels has yet to recognize them as citizens, equal in all respects to their white counterparts,” he said in a 1960 speech to the house.
“When he started he fought very hard for what he thought was right, and that included things like the vote and the right to drink and citizenship rights, adequate housing and infrastructure,” said Phelps.
“He was always in their corner,” said Phelps.
Many elders credit Nielsen with many of the community’s modern amenities — the school, health centre and the airport.
“He was quite looked up to, I think a lot of the older people didn’t really understand things and they thought he did all these things — like the school,” said Stephen Frost Sr.
“They may not have known that these things were going to happen anyway, but he was in power, and he pushed it and he got highly recommended for things like that,” said Frost.
During caribou shortages, elders credited Nielsen with arranging shipments of buffalo and reindeer meat from the Northwest Territories.
During his career, Nielsen staunchly opposed the massive expansion of government largely implemented by Pierre Trudeau. The elders of Old Crow shared similar sentiments.
“Our belief system and philosophy is very similar to that of Conservatives,” said Linklater.
“We look after each other, we don’t want to depend on governments for anything, we should choose our own way and be able to make our own living.
“The elders and Erik Nielsen were very much in tune along those lines,” he said.
But beyond being a bastion of stable political support, Nielsen developed close bonds with the people of Old Crow.
As a pilot, he often found time to speed up North and visit the village.
“When he learned about Old Crow life, he started to go a lot more,” said Hannah Netro, wife of Joe Netro — a close lifelong friend of Nielsen.
Netro remembered Nielsen’s enthusiasm for her prepared caribou meat.
“I would say, ‘I made all this caribou, are you going to eat it?’ and he would say, ‘You bet I am,’” she said.
When Frost Sr. was down in Whitehorse racing dogs with his family during the 1960s, he could always count on a visit from his MP.
“He would always make time to come and see us, whether it was a cup of coffee or a little visit,” said Frost.
“His relationships and longstanding friendships in Old Crow in particular were just quite amazing to anybody … he knew people up there better than any non-Old Crow person I ever met,” said Phelps.
As time wore on and the stress of Ottawa truly began to bear down on the aging political maverick, Old Crow became almost a place of escape.
“Certainly, it was almost a holiday for him to go up there and meet with the people,” said Phelps.
“If you were there when he arrived, as I had the occasion to do a couple of times, he was very warmly received — genuine mutual respect” he said.
“He might have been an Ottawa politician, but he always sat with the old people. And I’m sure when they went to Whitehorse for medical or things, you always heard ‘Erik Nielsen came to visit us,’” said Frost.
“He visited everybody. And he got pretty close to the people. A lot of them still talk about him, how close he was, how good of work he had done,” said Robert Bruce Jr., an elder and former MLA for Vuntut Gwitchin.
Even with Erik gone, the Nielsen name still lingers in Old Crow.
Rick, Nielsen’s son, a commercial pilot, is still a fixture in the small community.
“I got to know Rick well enough that he took the time to come all the way to Old Crow last summer … he took the time to land by my cabin and spent three, four hours,” said Frost.
“There’s not a lot of people that do that,” he said.