Tough, brutally honest Nielsen championed the Yukon

He was born in Regina, and spent his adolescence in the prairies, but Erik Nielsen’s formative years were spent deep within the Canadian North.

He was born in Regina, and spent his adolescence in the prairies, but Erik Nielsen’s formative years were spent deep within the Canadian North.

Nielsen’s father, a member of the RCMP, had been posted to Fort Norman in the Northwest Territories, just 320 kilometres from the Arctic Circle.

As the only white family in the entire community, the young Nielsen brothers often spoke more Dogrib, the local First Nation dialect, than English.

Before entering school, Nielsen’s oldest brother Gordon wasn’t even speaking English, he said.

At 18, Nielsen joined the RCAF for service overseas during the Second World War.

Throughout the war, he would fly 23 missions as a member of a Lancaster crew, and 33 bombing missions as a pilot officer.

After a mission, Nielsen often had to shepherd a damaged plane and wounded crewmen back to England.

When he returned home after the German surrender, Nielsen had a Distinguished Flying Cross pinned on his uniform — and an English bride on his arm.

After six more years of RCAF service, Nielsen and his wife would once again move to the North to fill a position at the territory’s van Roggen law firm.

They brought their three young children with them. Lee, his oldest, Rick, who still lives in Whitehorse, and Roxanne, who would later become the first Yukon woman to join the standing forces of the RCMP.

After a door-to-door and restaurant-to-restaurant campaign of grassroots political support, a hotly contested byelection would narrowly propel Nielsen into power in 1957 as a Progressive Conservative.

Over the next 30 years, Yukoners would go to the polls 10 more times to keep Nielsen sitting in Ottawa.

A hard parliamentary worker for whom 18-hour days were not uncommon, Nielsen’s House reputation began to skyrocket in 1964, when he was instrumental in uncovering the Rivard affair — when Liberal bungling was linked to the jail escape of a drug smuggler.

Scandal after Liberal scandal would fall within Nielsen’s grasp.

As he brought down Liberal careers and shook Grit integrity, he became a feared opponent in the House.

“His resignation was greeted with sadness on this side and obvious relief on the other side,” said then-Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1987.

Nielsen harboured a fierce distrust of Liberal politics. While Pierre Trudeau was prime minister, he referred to him as a “radical socialist” who ran “the most dangerous government in Canada’s history.”

Nielsen quickly gained a reputation as holding fierce loyalty to party and leader.

“You don’t win battles by allowing your squadron leader to be shot down in flames,” said Nielsen when his Tory colleagues were attempting to oust Joe Clark as leader.

Even as a prominent party fixture for 30 years, Nielsen never sought the party leadership.

In his autobiography, he revealed that he believed himself unworthy because of “immoral conduct” with Debbie Kelly, his parliamentary secretary.

The two maintained an affair for years that would eventually yield a son — Sean Kelly, who is now 34 and living in the United States.

Nielsen served as deputy prime minister under Mulroney, and the Tories were plagued by their own spate of internal scandals.

Nielsen would play a role in counselling defence minister Robert Coates to resign after it was revealed he had visited a West German strip club.

And then opposition crosshairs were turned on Nielsen himself when it was revealed that he had exposed Liberal scandals in the 1960s with the help of clandestine monitoring of Liberal caucus rooms.

“We knew every Wednesday what was said in the Liberal caucus, word for bloody word,” said Nielsen in a 1973 interview.

The monitoring wasn’t the result of any bugging devices, simply a matter of improperly crossed communication lines in the West Block of Parliament.

Still, the press and opposition pounced on the story.

When Mulroney refused to answer questions about the affair during question period, the opposition walked out.

Thirty years of political pressure wreaked havoc on Nielsen’s personal life.

During his uncovering of the Rivard Affair, he received abusive and threatening phone calls, both at work and at home.

“It did not disturb me, because the world is full of that kind of person, but it disturbed my wife,” he said.

The pressure of politics put increased strains on Nielsen’s marriage, until they were nearly estranged and Pamela was almost constantly in a thick haze of alcohol and drugs.

In 1969, she was found dead in their home garage from carbon monoxide poisoning.

It was never clear whether she had committed suicide, or simply passed out in the car from a combination of alcohol and prescription drugs.

Following her death, Nielsen became a much closer father to his kids, vowing to raise them properly in Pamela’s absence.

In his memoir The House is not a Home he offered personal advice to those looking to enter into politics.

“Do not become a commuting politician, do not tolerate separation from your family. If you do you will lose them and learn, too late, that the House is not a home.”

During the Mulroney years, Nielsen would marry Shelley, a former House of Commons security guard, who would remain his wife until his death.

For personal reasons or otherwise, Nielsen often sought to leave federal politics in the latter years of his career.

In 1979, he responded to a question about what he would do if he ran the country by saying that he would immediately look around “with great vigour” for somebody else to do it.

That same year, he ran for leadership of the territorial Conservative Party, a position that would have forfeited his MP status. However, he was unsuccessful.

In 1986, Nielsen told the Yukon News that it was no secret he had wanted out of federal politics for years.

“I don’t miss (politics) one little bit,” he told Peter Gzowski in a 1991 interview.

In biographical citations of Nielsen, it is often written, usually in the first paragraph, that he is actor Leslie Nielsen’s older brother. Until his career took off, says Leslie, it used to be the other way around.

Occasionally, Erik would be mistaken for his brother on the streets of Ottawa.

As a rising political star, Nielsen’s position gave valuable stature to the Yukon — a region easily forgotten by a federal government located 6,000 kilometres away.

Months after his first election, Nielsen arranged for a Yukon visit by prime minister John Diefenbaker — the first ever to visit the territory.

A political reporter visiting Whitehorse in 1964 remembered people approaching Nielsen on the street and praising him for “giving them hell in Ottawa.”

To this day, the Whitehorse Airport, Dempster Highway, the road to Skagway and the Guild Hall owe some measure of gratitude to Nielsen’s Yukon advocacy in Ottawa.

Nielsen, a close personal friend of Old Crow’s Joe Netro, was also a prominent voice for First Nation rights.

His first speech in government dealt entirely with native affairs, and he was a vocal candidate for First Nation rights in the days when they were not even granted the right to vote.

“One hundred and seventy- five thousand Indians in Canada live under a dictatorship in which they have inferior status to the average Canadian,” he said in a 1960 speech to the House.

Throughout his career, animosity between Nielsen and the media grew progressively stronger.

Eventually, the media gave Nielsen the unflattering name of “Velcro Lips” for his frequent refusals to speak to the press.

In the years following 1958, he complained of what he saw as a gradual erosion in journalistic integrity, and an increasingly left-wing slant on the news.

However, Nielsen’s Velcro Lips reputation was defied in his 1989 memoir, which set the standard for brutal honesty in a political autobiography.

Describing himself as a private person, in the book’s prologue Nielsen pledges a “revealing and blunt account, whatever the pain it causes.”

“Time and space have constrained me, but a desire to spare anyone’s feelings, including my own, has not,” he wrote.

Nielsen died of a heart attack at his Kelowna, BC, home on September 4.

He was 84.

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