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WITH THE LEADER - Bea Firth, who was a researcher for the former Yukon Territorial Progressive Conservative Party before becoming an MLA in 1982, is seen with then-government leader Chris Pearson in 1981. (left) CHALLENGING FOR LEADER - Bea Firth is seen in 1985, the year she ran against Willard Phelps and Ken McKinnon for the Conservative party leadership. Phelps won, and was briefly the government leader.

Cancer claims former Yukon cabinet minister

Bea Firth, a former Yukon MLA and cabinet minister with a feisty disposition - died Friday morning of cancer at the age of 62.

By Chuck Tobin on June 23, 2008

Bea Firth, a former Yukon MLA and cabinet minister with a feisty disposition - died Friday morning of cancer at the age of 62.

Firth retired from politics in 1996, after having served 14 years as the representative for Riverdale South.

"When she was in politics, she was very, very dedicated to her constituents and to her political beliefs, and I think that showed up when she ran for the political leadership of the Conservative Party (in 1985)," brother-in-law John Firth said this morning.

Firth said she was a cancer survivor of almost 40 years.

"She was very open about being a cancer survivor and very much a supporter of the Canadian Cancer Society, and she loved life on the farm."

She and her husband, Tom, once owned a farm off the Mayo Road north of Whitehorse.

She was first diagnosed with cancer in 1971, and beat it.

John said she was fighting another kind of cancer over the last 18 months.

At Bea's request, there won't be any funeral nor service, he said.

The late politician came to the Yukon in 1967 as a registered nurse on a six-month contract to work at Whitehorse General Hospital.

She married Tom in 1967 and continued to work at the hospital until 1981, when she first entered the political arena.

She lost a 1981 byelection in Riverdale South to former Liberal MLA Ron Veale, but turned around in the 1982 general election and defeated Veale, who serves today as a justice with the Yukon Supreme Court.

Sworn into cabinet as a rookie MLA after the '82 territorial election, Firth would eventually break away from the Conservative party to serve as an independent, citing untenable differences with her right-wing colleagues.

She did not seek re-election in 1996, but rather decided to focus on the farm.

"I just think it is a sad day for the Yukon, because she was a dedicated Yukoner," Gordon Steele, the longtime principal secretary for the Yukon Party and former Conservative party, said this morning.

"I am really sad to see her go."

Along with Ken McKinnon, she challenged for the party leadership in 1985 after former leader Chris Pearson stepped down, but lost to Willard Phelps.

The New Democrats took over the government two months later, and Phelps would later remove Firth as a critic for the official Opposition.

Friction between Firth and the party became more pronounced in the late 1980s. Finally, in June 1991, she announced she was leaving the party, and that she and Alan Nordling - another disgruntled Conservative - would form the Independent Alliance Party.

Both ran successfully as independents in the 1992 territorial election, won by John Ostashek's Yukon Party.

"I have good memories of that woman," said Al Falle, who served with Firth in the Conservative caucus between '82 and '85. Falle backed Firth in the '85 leadership race.

"Bea Firth, as far as I am concerned, she had uncompromising integrity."

Falle said Firth wasn't afraid to call a spade a spade, and was not afraid to challenge even members of her own party.

"In my opinion, we needed more politicians like her."

With an often humourous and witty tongue, she wasn't afraid to tangle in the legislature, whether it was with cabinet ministers on the New Democrats' side of the floor or later with ministers for her estranged party.

Piers McDonald, a former NDP minister in Tony Penikett's government from 1985 to 1992, recalled this morning how Firth did her homework, made the phone calls she needed to make.

"She came to the legislature prepared, which is something that made her fairly effective as a critic," said McDonald, who was first elected to the house with Firth in 1982.

He said if she saw something wrong, she addressed it, and she didn't have much tolerance for beating around the bush.

Firth, McDonald remembers, used to wear a button around the gun club that read Rambe, instead of Rambo, in reference to the rough and tough Hollywood character played by Sylvester Stallone.

"That about sums up Bea."

McDonald and others contacted this morning offered condolences and respect to her husband.

Tom and Bea were very close, McDonald said.

In her book titled Yukon Women of Political Power, Joyce Hayden, a former NDP cabinet minister, describes Firth as a "quintessential Opposition critic, hard worker, knowledgeable, tough and sometimes merciless."

Firth also referred to herself back in the 1990s as the only true independent MLA, as the new Yukon Party government did not run a candidate in Dawson City in 1992 against Nordling.

Nordling won the election and went on to prop up the new Ostashek government by agreeing to serve as Speaker.

"She was considered impossible to unseat, and many people tried," Hayden wrote.

Comments (7)

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Kathie Nukon on Jun 30, 2008 at 4:21 pm

My children, Gerald, Harlan and Geraldine were jus' kids when I served as MLA for the Old Crow riding from 1982 to '85. During this time I served with Bea Firth. As young as my kids were, they always remembered Bea. They loved her in their own ways, because she was mommy's friend. On behalf of my family here in Old Crow I extend my deepest sympathy to her husband, Tom and to the Firth and Schmuck families. May you find comfort in the wonderful memories of a remarkable woman, my friend, Bea. God bless you all. Sincerely from Kathie, Gerald, Harlan and Geraldine Nukon

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Lynn Alcock on Jun 25, 2008 at 2:50 am

I was deeply saddened at Bea's passing. She was such a go getter, and never afraid to voice her opinion.

I was more fortunate than most I feel, as I knew Bea as both a politician and a farmer. We spent many years picking up hay from their pastures, and I will always remember Bea sitting on her tractor with a smile as wide as the Yukon River.

She is and will be deeply missed. My codolences to Tom and the family.

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Cathleen (Netzel) Lyons on Jun 24, 2008 at 5:54 pm

My condolances to Tom and the Firth family on Bea's passing. I spent many hours working the night shift with Bea at Whitehorse General Hospital in the 60s. She made the night shift enjoyable experience for both patients and staff with her outgoing personality and kind heart. She is an excellent example of someone who faced the many challenges of life with a smile and positive attitude. She was an exceptional woman who will be missed by many.

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Judi Johnny on Jun 24, 2008 at 10:29 am

I was sadden to hear of Bea Firth's passing. I knew her and had talked with on different issues that I was working on during the time that she was in the Ledge. We need to honour this wonderful woman. She did wonders for this community.

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Steve Leonard on Jun 24, 2008 at 2:29 am

Bea was one of the first politicions I met when I began travelling to Yukon in 1982. She was a refreshing voice, willing to say what she felt and to stand behind it. She and I had the occaisional disagreement (I being a little further to the right than she) but she was always respectful, willing to listen and may have even changed her mind a time or two. She was of a breed of public servant we see far too little of today, willing to take a stand based on their beliefs rather than on what they believe will get them reelected. You seem to have more of them in Yukon than we have in the states, but even there the passing of such a wonderful person is a truly sad occaision.

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Paul Nugent on Jun 23, 2008 at 9:36 pm

It is with the deepest sadness that I learned of Bea Firth's illness and passing. In my three year tenure as President of the Yukon Teachers Association I had opportunities to lock horns with the Minister of Education but it never came to that, as she always worked for the best interests of her constituents, the Yukon and the students. Bea Firth was Yukon!

Professor Paul Nugent

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sandy jamesen on Jun 23, 2008 at 11:54 am

My condolences to Tom and Howie on their loss

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