Erik Nielsen

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The Honourable
Erik Nielsen
3rd Deputy Prime Minister of Canada
In office
September 17, 1984 – June 30, 1986
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney
Preceded by Jean Chrétien
Succeeded by Don Mazankowski
Leader of the Opposition
In office
February 2, 1983 – August 28, 1983
Preceded by Joe Clark
Succeeded by Brian Mulroney
Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada
In office
February 19, 1983 – June 11, 1983
Preceded by Joe Clark
Succeeded by Brian Mulroney
Minister of National Defence
In office
February 27, 1985 – June 29, 1986
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney
Preceded by Robert Coates
Succeeded by Perrin Beatty
President of the Privy Council
In office
September 17, 1984 – February 26, 1985
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney
Preceded by André Ouellet
Succeeded by Ray Hnatyshyn
Minister of Public Works
In office
June 4, 1979 – March 2, 1980
Prime Minister Joe Clark
Preceded by André Ouellet
Succeeded by Paul Cosgrove
Member of the Canadian Parliament
for Yukon
In office
December 16, 1957 – January 16, 1987
Preceded by James Aubrey Simmons
Succeeded by Audrey McLaughlin
Personal details
Born Erik Hersholt Nielsen
(1924-02-24)February 24, 1924
Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
Died September 4, 2008(2008-09-04) (aged 84)
Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada
Political party Progressive Conservative
Spouse(s) Pamela June Nielsen (–1969)
Shelley Nielsen (1983–2008)
Profession Barrister, Attorney
Military service
Service/branch 20px RCAF
Years of service 1942-1945
Rank Lieutenant

Erik Hersholt Nielsen PC DFC QC (February 24, 1924 – September 4, 2008) was a Canadian lawyer and politician. He served as the longtime Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament for Yukon, and was Leader of the Opposition and the third deputy prime minister. He was the elder brother of actor Leslie Nielsen.

Early life, family, and education

Nielsen was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, the eldest of three boys. His mother, Mabel Elizabeth (née Davies), was an immigrant from Wales, and his father, Ingvard Eversen Nielsen (1900-1975), was a Danish-born constable in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.[1][2][3] Nielsen's family lived mainly in Alberta during his formative years, and he graduated from high school in Edmonton in 1942.[4]

World War II

Nielsen joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942, just after graduation, and received his training mainly in Alberta. He flew 33 missions in No. 101 Squadron RAF in WWII, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (United Kingdom) for "courage and devotion to duty,". He earned the rank of lieutenant.[5] He rejoined the RCAF, 1946–51, as a legal officer, while earning a law degree at Dalhousie. He established his law practice in Whitehorse, Yukon.[6]


Nielsen was elected to parliament in late 1957 (Nielsen lost in the 1957 federal election, but the result was controverted and Nielsen won the resulting byelection) and remained an MP without interruption for 30 years. He was a backbench MP during the Diefenbaker government but became prominent during the Conservative Party's long period in Opposition during the 1960s and 1970s joining the shadow cabinet in 1964. In 1978, he ran for the leadership of the newly formed Yukon Progressive Conservative Party as it prepared for the territory's first partisan elections but was defeated by Hilda Watson by one vote.[7]

With the 1979 federal election, the Tories formed government for the first time in over 15 years and Nielsen was appointed Minister of Public Works in the short-lived minority government of Prime Minister Joe Clark. After the Tories were defeated in the 1980 election, he served as Opposition House Leader from 1981 until 1983, and engineered the "Bell Ringing Affair" to protest the Liberal government's omnibus energy bill. The business of the House of Commons of Canada ground to a halt for three weeks because the Opposition refused to respond to the bell summoning Members of Parliament to come to the chamber to vote.

Nielsen served as Leader of the Opposition in 1983 between the resignation of Joe Clark and the election of Brian Mulroney as PC leader, and continued to lead the party in the House until Mulroney won a seat in a by-election, at which point Nielsen returned to his previous position as House Leader.

When Mulroney became prime minister, he made Nielsen his deputy prime minister from 1984 to 1986, and President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada from 1984 to 1985. Nielsen was effectively the senior Government House Leader in all but name. He also served as Minister of National Defence from 1985 to 1986.

Nielsen has been called "Yukon Erik",[8] (a reference to wrestler Yukon Eric of the 1950s) but he has also been called "Velcro lips" for a tight-lipped reticence during his time in office.[9] The tenaciousness and aggressiveness that made Nielsen a successful Opposition MP made him a liability as a Cabinet minister as he gave the impression of being secretive and disdainful of criticism by the Opposition and the media. His habit of stonewalling questions had the effect of prolonging the shelf life of political scandals in Parliament, and thus hurt the government's reputation. This became most apparent during the Sinclair Stevens conflict-of-interest scandal, in which Mulroney was out of Parliament for two weeks while the opposition barraged Nielsen with questions. Shortly after Mulroney returned in June 1986, he forced both Nielsen and Stevens to resign from cabinet.

Years afterward, future Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps would remark that the sacking of Nielsen made Mulroney "look decisive", when pointing out the importance of a deputy prime minister in protecting the prime minister from political damage during question period.[10]

Nielsen resigned his seat in Parliament in January 1987 when he was given the position of chairman of the National Transportation Agency. He withdrew from the public service in 1992 to become president of Solar Engineering, Hawaii Inc. and Solar Electric Engineering Distributors Canada.

One of Nielsen's brothers was actor Leslie Nielsen. The relationship formed the premise of an HBO mockumentary titled The Canadian Conspiracy, comically alleging a Canadian subversion of the United States through its media. Nielsen was also a nephew of actor Jean Hersholt.

Nielsen wrote a memoir, The House Is Not a Home (1989, ISBN 0-7715-9426-7), noted for its bracing directness both about his colleagues and about his own personal life.

He died at his home in Kelowna, British Columbia on September 4, 2008, from a massive heart attack.[11] On December 15, the government of Yukon renamed the main airport at Whitehorse, the capital of the territory, to Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport in Nielsen's memory.[12]


  1. Simpson, Kieran (1980). Canadian Who's Who, Volume 15. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-4579-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Lumley, Elizabeth (2003). Canadian Who's Who 2003, Volume 38. University of Toronto Press. p. 1,103. ISBN 0-8020-8865-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Leslie Nielsen, the comic with the Danish roots: "Comedy is what endures"". Scandinavian Press. 4 (1). March 31, 1997. ProQuest 218390756.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "The House Is Not a Home", 1989
  5. "The House Is Not a Home"
  6. "The House Is Not a Home
  7.[permanent dead link]
  8. Jim Lotz, Prime Ministers of Canada, Bison Books, 1987, p. 154
  9. Lotz, 150.
  10. Retrieved February 11, 2006. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  11. "Erik Nielsen dies in B.C. at 84". The Globe and Mail. September 5, 2008. Retrieved June 5, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Yukon names airport after former MP Nielsen". CBC News. December 16, 2008. Retrieved June 5, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Joe Clark
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
Brian Mulroney
Preceded by
Jean Chrétien
Deputy Prime Minister of Canada
Succeeded by
Don Mazankowski
Party political offices
Preceded by
Joe Clark
Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party

Succeeded by
Brian Mulroney