My first encounter of the close kind with Hollywood’s funniest man occurred in 1984. His brother Erik Nielsen had just been sworn in as Canada’s…
From June of 1957 until April of 1958, he ran in three federal elections. In less than a year, this Yukoner lost and won more elections than most politicians do in a lifetime.
Erik Nielsen's life as a politician is the stuff legend, except most of it is true. The young lawyer came to the Yukon in 1952, and he brought with him a distinguished war record. As a pilot in the RCAF during World War II, he flew 23 missions with a Lancaster bomber squadron. Then, as a commissioned pilot/officer, he flew 33 bombing missions over Europe, including the epic D-Day invasion in 1944. Nielsen was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, but that was just the beginning.
In 1957, he won the Progressive Conservative nomination and headed into the June federal election against long time Liberal incumbent, Aubrey Simmons. When the vote was counted in the Yukon, Erik had a 52-vote lead. At the time, however, members of the Armed Forces overseas could designate their voting riding. One hundred and 77 voted in the Yukon riding. When that vote was counted, Simmons won the election, by 70 votes. Nationally, under John Diefenbaker, the Conservatives formed a minority government.
But it wasn't over in the Yukon. The local conservatives filed a petition claiming numerous voting irregularities, including that of seven people having voted twice. Even the winning Liberals agreed that the election was flawed. In December of 1957, a by-election was held in the Yukon. This time, Nielsen won by a slim 128-vote margin. He was now a member of the minority federal government.
Having toured the Yukon in his private plane during the previous two elections, Nielsen kept his engines running. Good thing. In April of 1958, Diefenbaker called yet another federal election. Erik Nielsen and Aubrey Simmons were again on the hustings, for the third time in 10 months.
This time, Nielsen won the Yukon seat by a margin of nearly 700 votes. The Progressive Conservatives won a huge majority nationally, and Erik Nielsen began a thirty-year career which took him further, politically, than any Yukoner had gone before.
As a member of the largest majority government in Canadian history, he became known in Ottawa as Yukon Erik. Slowly but surely, he was making a name for both himself and the territory he presented.
In May of 1958, after the Conservative landslide victory in the federal election, Erik Nielsen was selected by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to address the reply to the Speech from the Throne. It was a small, but important gesture. Nielsen would become a confidant of the Prime Minister, a supporter and friend for the rest of Dief's days.
It would stand the Yukon in good stead, as federal eyes turned northward for the first time since the gold rush. A 'roads to resources' program was established, which eventually included the building of the Dempster Highway, the Skagway road, and upgrades to the Alaska and Haines highways. Dawson City became a national historic site. Nielsen also made the first federal proposal to allow the Yukon and NWT a seat each in the senate. It was a heady time for the young lawyer-turned-politician from the Yukon.
In 1962, after four years with the largest majority in Canadian history, the conservatives were hammered in the federal election. They were barely able to form a minority government. Nielsen easily won the Yukon seat, but he knew yet another federal election was not far off. A year later, in 1963, Nielsen fought his fifth election in six years, certainly some sort of parliamentary record. Again, Yukon Erik won handily, but the Diefenbaker government was defeated. As the Liberals under Lester Pearson assumed power, Nielsen became a member of the opposition. It's a role the feisty lawyer seemed to enjoy and would earn him yet another nickname...Hawk of the House.
The mid-60s heralded a tumultous time in Canadian politics, and the member of parliament for the Yukon would be at the centre of it all.
By 1964, Erik Nielsen was considered a veteran on Parliament Hill. He'd been there for seven years. The Liberals were in power. As a member of the official opposition, Nielsen thought it his duty to challenge the government at every turn. And to embarrass if if he could.
But never in his wildest dreams did the Yukon MP think he'd be the spark that kindled a wild-fire of scandal in the Liberal party. Nielsen had developed a select group of sources. This paid off when he learned that Liberal political aides in Quebec were receiving kickbacks in exchange for political favours.
His revelations rocked Ottawa. Then, when he discovered that a notorious Montreal drug dealer, Lucien Rivard, had been allowed to water a skating rink outside the confines of his prison cell and escaped to the US, the scandal resulted in a judicial inquiry. The Liberal justice minster Guy Favreau was forced to resign. The Liberals were in disarray. Nielsen was dubbed by the media...Hawk of the House.
The result was yet another federal election, in November of 1965. Nielsen fought and won his sixth election in eight years. But, the Conservatives, under Diefenbaker, lost and Nielsen was again a member of the official opposition. Not until 1979 would he be a member of the governing party. That year, under leader Joe Clarke, the Tories held power for a mere nine months. Nielsen joined the cabinet as Minister of Public Works. In 1980, the Liberals were returned to office. It would be four more years before Yukon Erik would again taste the fruits of power.
It seems a distant memory now, but it was only fourteen years ago that the Conservatives, under Brian Mulroney, were swept into office with the largest majority government in history. Along with it, the political fortunes of the member for the Yukon rose and fell in three short years.
Pierre Trudeau had taken a long walk in the snow. John Turner took a short stroll to lead the Liberal party into the federal election of 1984. Both were political veterans with political baggage. On the other hand, Brian Mulroney was a fresh face on the national scene, and he led the Progressive Conservatives to a stunning landslide victory.
When it came to politics, Mulroney's closest advisor was Erik Nielsen. In September of that year, the member of parliament for the Yukon achieved his highest office. Yukon Erik was appointed Deputy Prime Minister. He was also given the job of re-organizing all aspects of the way federal departments operated. For a time, he also held the post of defense minister when Bob Coates was forced to resign. He was also fisheries minister for a short time when John Fraser was forced to resign.
Nielsen, backed by Mulroney, was arguably the most powerful politician in the country. But the hodge-podge collection of conservatives, including separatists from Quebec, long time political hacks from Ontario, and alienated liberals from the west, proved an unwieldy bunch. As Nielsen had revealed Liberal scandals in the 60s and 70s, now the Liberals were doing the same to the Conservatives. Cabinet ministers were forced to resign. Back-benchers were caught using their political power to personal advantage.
As Deputy Prime Minister, Nielsen was forced to defend Sinclair Stevens in the House of Commons as the opposition accused the cabinet minister of using his ministerial office for personal benefit. It's likely Nielsen knew he was defending the indefensible. What became known as the 'Stevens affair' in 1986, got Nielsen to thinking about his political future.
Then the press revealed excerpts a from private interview Nielsen gave in 1973. They charged that Nielsen received much of his information about Liberal scandals back in the '60s by installing listening devises in the Liberal caucus rooms. Nielsen vehemently denied the charge, but the resulting furor in the House of Commons prompted Brian Mulroney to force Nielson to offer an apology. Reluctantly, Yukon Erik stood in the House of Commons and, looking at the Prime Minister, he apologized.
Shortly thereafter, Nielsen announced that he would be leaving federal politics before the next federal election. His friendship with Mulroney was shattered. His love of the House of Commons turned to disgust. After he resigned on January 19th, 1987, he wrote a book whose title reveals the thoughts of this 30-year veteran of the political wars in Ottawa. It was called "The House is Not a Home".
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.