Last week we looked at one of the most well-known individuals to serve as the Leader of the Official Opposition, who never became Prime Minister, Robert Stanfield. Now, I am going to look at a man who had a multi-decade career in the House of Commons, but who only served in the post of Leader of the Opposition briefly between two prime ministers, Erik Nielsen.
On Feb. 24, 1924, Nielsen was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, the oldest of three boys to Mabel, who was an immigrant from Wales, and Ingvard, a Danish-born constable with the RCMP. The family would live for a time in Fort Norman, where the Nielsen brothers learned to speak the local Indigenous language.
During his early years, the family lived in Alberta, and Nielsen would graduate from high school in 1942 in Edmonton.
That same year, he enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force and trained in Alberta.
During the war, he served with the No 101st Squadron and flew 33 missions with the Royal Air Force, gaining the Distinguished Flying Cross for his courage and devotion to duty. He would also rise to the rank of lieutenant.
Upon arriving home, he brought with him his first wife, an English woman named Pamela.
From 1946 to 1951, he was back with the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he worked as a legal officer as he earned his law degree from Dalhousie.
Upon graduating from law school, Nielsen opened up a practice as far away from Nova Scotia as you can get in Canada, Whitehorse in the Yukon. By this point, Nielsen and his wife had three children. His daughter, Roxanne, would go on to become the first Yukon woman to join the standing forces of the RCMP.
On June 10, 1957, Nielsen ran for a seat in the House of Commons as a member of the Progressive Conservative Party. He would lose that election by only 70 votes despite previously having a 52 vote lead before the Armed Forces vote came in, but a subsequent investigation found many irregularities in the voting. It was found that as many as seven people voted twice, and the federal Liberals agreed the election was flawed.
A new election for the riding was called. In that by-election, Nielsen would win by 128 votes and it would begin 30 years of uninterrupted service in the House of Commons for him.
In his first speech in Parliament, he spoke only of Indigenous affairs, and throughout his career he was a vocal supporter of Indigenous rights even before they had the right to vote. He would state, quote:
“One hundred and seventy-five thousand Indians in Canada live under a dictatorship in which they have inferior status to the average Canadian.”
The year he made that remark, 1960, was the same year that the Indigenous would finally get the vote.
It was around this time he would develop a deep hatred of bureaucracy. He had been working with a local community group to build a new school in the Yukon community Old Crow. He and the group had planned out a building worth $45,000, but he would claim later that bureaucrats stepped in with a new design that was worth $400,000. He would write, years later, quote:
While the Progressive Conservatives were in power from 1957 to 1963, Nielsen was still a young Member of Parliament and he would serve as a backbencher during those years. In 1958, he was selected by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to address the reply to the Speech from the Throne. This was a small but important gesture and Nielsen would remain a loyal friend and supporter to Diefenbaker for the rest of Diefenbaker’s life.
As a member of Parliament for the Yukon, a place that historically received little notice in Ottawa, Nielsen became known as Mr. Yukon for pushing to have the territory gain a more prominent role in Canada. He would make the first federal proposal to allow the Yukon and Northwest Territories a seat in the Senate during his first year in Parliament.
Once the Conservatives were in the Official Opposition though, through the 1960s and 1970s, Nielsen began to rise in the party, serving in the shadow cabinet and becoming a prominent member of the party. During this time he would often attack the government, earning him the nickname of the Hawk of the House. During this time, he was known for uncovering several Liberal scandals, including the Rivard Affair, in which the Liberals were said to have bungled a matter relating to the escape of a drug smuggler. He soon became feared in the House of Commons by the Liberals. He would later claim the Liberals prompted Revenue Canada to audit his tax returns, stating quote:
“The Department of National Revenue descended with full force upon me and my very disillusioned Liberal partner, our taxes were substantially reassessed with interest penalties.”
His law partner would say in 1989 that he had no memory of any tax audit in connection with his partnership with Nielsen, which he said ended in 1957, not the 1960s.
Tragedy would strike in 1969 when Nielsen’s wife, Pamela, died. In his autobiography, written 20 years later, Nielsen would tell all about his life in and out of politics. In there, he stated he had a decade-long affair with his parliamentary office secretary, which produced a son. Pamela’s death was ruled due to carbon monoxide poisoning while she was in her car. It was never clear if it was a suicide, or she passed out due to a combination of alcohol and prescription drugs.
In 1979, he would run to be the leader of the Yukon Progressive Conservative Party, which was newly formed in the Yukon, but he was defeated in that quest by only one vote.
That same year, the Progressive Conservatives won the federal election and Joe Clark became prime minister. During the short-lived minority government of Clark, Nielsen served as the Minister of Public Works.
After the Liberals came back into power in 1980, Nielsen became the Opposition House leader in 1981, serving until 1983. As Opposition House Leader, which is not the Leader of the Official Opposition, he orchestrated the Bell Ringing Affair, which protested the omnibus energy bill of the Liberals. It involved refusing to respond to the bell summoning Members of Parliament to come to the chamber to vote, and it would grind the business of Parliament to a halt for three weeks. He would say later, quote:
“Given the minority situation in the House, the legislation would have been doomed to defeat without the pre-approval of the NDP. This is a classic example of the minority government dog being wagged by the balance of power tail.”
It should be noted that at the time, the Liberals had a majority government.
Nielsen was known to being fiercely loyal to the leader of the party, and when there was a movement to remove Joe Clark in 1983, he would state, quote:
“You don’t win battles by allowing your squadron leader to be shot down in flames.”
While many wondered why he never attempted to become leader of the party himself. He would say later in his autobiography that he felt unworthy for it over his conduct with his parliamentary secretary during the 1950s and 1960s.
After Joe Clark resigned as leader of the Progressive Conservatives on Feb. 19, 1983, and before his replacement Brian Mulroney could take his seat in the House of Commons on June 29, 1983, the role of Leader of the Official Opposition fell to Nielsen.
Around this same time, he would also marry his second wife Shelley, who would remain with him for the rest of his life.
After the 1984 federal election, in which Brian Mulroney won a massive landslide victory, Nielsen was appointed as the deputy prime minister of Canada, a role he would hold from 1984 to 1986. He would also serve as the President of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada from 1984 to 1985, and the Minister of National Defence from 1985 to 1986. During those years, Nielsen was considered to be the closest advisor of Mulroney and with the support of Mulroney, Nielsen was one of the most powerful politicians in Canada.
In his autobiography, he would write some advice for anyone looking to enter politics, stating quote:
“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.”
Throughout his career as a Member of Parliament, Nielsen was called Yukon Erik, referencing a wrestler from the 1950s, and Velcro Lips, for being tight-lipped with the press. While many felt this made him successful as a member of the Opposition, it was also felt that as a cabinet minister it gave the impression that he was secretive and did not like criticism. He would also not answer questions regarding political scandals, which would have the effect of causing the scandal to go on longer.
Flo Whyard, former Whitehorse mayor, would state, quote:
“He wasn’t a backslapping kind of guy, a greeter, you know. He didn’t have time for that. He was there to do the job and he did it. A lot of people thought he was cold, but you could understand why he was like that because he had been in the air force and been through so much at such a young age.”
In 1986, the Sinclair Stevens conflict-of-interest scandal, was an example of this. The scandal involved Stevens, a Conservative MP, who was found to have 14 counts of conflict-of-interest allegations against him as the Minister of Regional Industrial Expansion. Mulroney was away for two weeks and the Official Opposition continually attacked Nielsen with questions over the scandal, which he did his best not to answer. When Mulroney returned, both Nielsen and Stevens were forced to resign from cabinet.
Then, the press revealed through private interviews by Nielsen in 1973 that he had received much of the information about Liberal scandals that helped bring down the Liberals and force an election in 1965 through the use of listening devices in Liberal caucus rooms.
In the 1973 interview, Nielsen was reported to have said, quote:
“We knew every Wednesday what was said in the Liberal caucus, word for bloody word.”
Nielsen denied the charge but the anger over the matter prompted Mulroney to tell Nielsen to apology, which he did, reluctantly.
One year later, after 30 years in the House of Commons, Nielsen resigned his seat to become the chairman of the National Transportation Agency.
Mulroney would state upon his resignation, alluding to his habit of attacking the Liberals for 30 years, quote:
“His resignation was greeted with sadness on this side and obvious relief on the other side.”
In 1989, he released the aforementioned autobiography, House is Not a Home, which set the standard for its brutal honesty. This surprised many considering how tight-lipped Nielsen was during his career.
In the forward to the book, he would write, quote:
“Time and space have constrained me, but a desire to spare anyone’s feelings, including my own, has not.”
He would speak on many topics in the book. Of Joe Clark, he would say, quote:
“Joe Clark had more attractive qualities as a leader than Brian Mulroney but the latter has the edge in the charisma department.”
He would add about Clark, quote:
“What he does not have is a pleasing television image, his jerky movements, enlarged head and diminished chin have doomed him.”
He would be especially harsh on Trudeau, calling him, quote:
The book also created backlash in the Mulroney government after Nielsen criticized it in the book. Marjory LeBreton, the deputy of staff to Prime Minister Mulroney, would state, quote:
“He’s an egotistical, self-centred chauvinist. I’ve watched Erik Nielsen for a long time and this is totally in character. The book tells you a lot more about Erik Nielsen than it does about anyone else.”
In 1992, he would become the president of Solar Engineering Hawaii Inc and Solar Electric Engineering Distributors Canada.
On Sept. 4, 2008, in his home in Kelowna, Nielsen suffered a massive heart attack and died at the age of 84.
In December of that year, the main airport in Whitehorse was renamed the Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport. That airport opened in 1986 and Nielsen was on hand to open it as the Minister of Public Works.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper would state, quote:
“Erik was a significant force in the world of Canadian politics, a fearless and formidable leader. He worked with passion and commitment for his constituents every day throughout his 30 years in Canadian politics. His heart was always in the Yukon, where he lived a very different life than in Ottawa.”
Former Prime Minister Joe Clark would state, quote:
“He was one of the most skillful parliamentarians of the last half century, constructive in office and a very effective MP for a diverse and difficult constituency. The development of self-government in Yukon owes more to Erik Nielsen than to any other single individual.”
Now you may notice that Nielsen’s last name is somewhat familiar. Well, there is a reason for that but I did not go into it in much detail because this episode is about Erik, not his world famous brother, Leslie. That’s right, Leslie Nielsen was the brother of Erik Nielsen and would only outlive him by two years, passing away in 2010. For 20 years, Leslie was known as the brother of Erik, who was much more famous, but by the 1980s, Erik was known as the brother of Leslie and he was often mistaken for him out in public. I will end this episode with a clip from when the two brothers appeared on Morningside in 1991.
Information from Yukon Nuggets, CBC, Wikipedia, Regina Leader-Post, Whitehorse Daily Star, Saskatoon Star Phoenix.