Constituents and colleagues on Parliament Hill knew him as Yukon Erik because of his northern roots. Journalists called him Velcro Lips for his firm refusal to talk to the press. And political opponents sometimes had nicknames of a ruder variety. But whatever the epithet, Conservative MP Erik Hersholt Nielsen was always known as a fiercely loyal partisan and a relentless gladiator in the House of Commons. Last week, after almost 30 years in Parliament, Nielsen announced his retirement. He did itch aracteristically— without fanfare, sending a one-paragraph letter to House Speaker John Fraser from Whitehorse by facsimile machine.
The announcement, said Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the House,
“was greeted by sadness on this side and obvious relief on the other.”
Nielsen, 63 next month, will become chairman of the Canadian Transport Commission. During his years on Parliament Hill he opposed Liberals with a passion that rivalled his penchant for secrecy.
First elected in 1957, he rose to prominence in 1964 when, as a junior opposition MP, he exposed a bribery scandal that forced the resignation of then-Liberal justice minister Guy Favreau. After a failed run at the leadership of the Yukon territorial government in 1978, he became minister of public works in the shortlived cabinet of Joe Clark in 1979.
Three years later, in one of his most celebrated achievements, he orchestrated a Tory filibuster that tied up House proceedings for two weeks in an attempt to block then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s patriation of the Constitution. But, declared Liberal leader John Turner last week, “whether we agreed with him or not, and more often than not we did not agree, he commanded our respect and even, from time to time, our admiration.” When the Conservatives formed the government in 1984, Nielsen became deputy prime minister. But politically, his combative methods were sometimes more damaging than effective. The party faced criticism early last
year after it was revealed that Nielsen had eavesdropped on Liberal caucus sessions during the 1960s—the result, he said, of faulty wiring. Nielsen finally issued a terse apology in the House, apparently on Mulroney’s insistence. Then, while the Prime Minister toured Asia last May, Nielsen refused to give the opposition information about conflict of interest charges levelled against then-cabinet minister Sinclair Stevens. When Mulroney returned, he overruled Nielsen and or-
dered a judicial inquiry into the affair. Six weeks later the Prime Minister shuffled the cabinet, excluding Nielsen from the new lineup.
Since then the stony-faced Nielsen has stayed mainly at his remote Quiet Lake home 120 km east of Whitehorse with his second wife, Shelley. A lawyer and former bomber pilot who received the Distinguished Flying Cross award during the Second World War, Nielsen was briefly hospitalized last October for fatigue. But he looked tanned and fit last week—and was characteristically curt—when he returned to Whitehorse after a Hawaiian vacation. Pressed for further comment on his retirement, Nielsen said only, “You can imagine how I feel.”
CINDY BARRETT with MICHAEL ROSE in Ottawa and JIM BUTLER in Whitehorse
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