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LIBERALS IN ARMS – Then-Yukon Liberal leader Roger Coles (right) is seen in 1984 with then- Liberal senator Paul Lucier, who is also deceased. Coles' support in the legislature created the territory's first NDP government in 1985.

Ex-Liberal leader rebuilt his life after scandal

Roger Coles, a former leader of the Yukon Liberal Party who will forever be associated here with selling cocaine in the mid-1980s, died suddenly on Monday in Drayton Valley, Alta.

By Jim Butler on June 28, 2013

Roger Coles, a former leader of the Yukon Liberal Party who will forever be associated here with selling cocaine in the mid-1980s, died suddenly on Monday in Drayton Valley, Alta.

The funeral for Coles, 54, took place Thursday in that community.

The back-slapping Coles, then operating a Carmacks motel to complement his work for the Liberals, accompanied then-prime minister John Turner during his July 1984 visit to Whitehorse and Tagish.

Coles went on to defeat then-Conservative cabinet minister Howard Tracey in the then-riding of Tatchun in the May 13, 1985 territorial election.

Some time earlier, he had taken over the party leadership from Ron Veale, then a lawyer and now a Yukon Supreme Court justice.

The election ousted then-government leader Willard Phelps' Conservatives and saw the Liberals prop up Tony Penikett's minority NDP government in the legislature. It was the first time the New Democrats had tasted power in the territory.

Among the conditions the Liberals set for their support were the elimination of health care premiums and improved traffic safety laws.

At the time, drinking while driving was permitted, as long as the driver didn't become legally impaired. As well, there was no mandatory seat belt law.

Yukon political circles were rocked in the spring of 1986 after Coles was arrested for selling cocaine to undercover police officers in Watson Lake.

He eventually resigned his seat, was given a three-year jail term, and moved to Alberta upon his release to begin a long and successful career as a realtor.

Before leaving the Yukon, Coles gave a memorable interview to CBC Yukon's Flora Evans, during which he expressed contrition for his criminal activity, spoke of the dangers of drugs and vowed to rebuild his life.

Then-Faro MLA Jim McLachlan took over the Liberals' reins in the legislature, and the New Democrats were re-elected in 1989.

This week, the Star left messages at the homes and businesses of several of Coles' political colleagues from that turbulent era.

Yukon Sen. Dan Lang, a Conservative MLA at the time, called back to say he had no comment.

Only former Liberal MLA Jack Cable would offer some reflections on Coles' political and life journey.

The two long-time Liberal colleagues maintained their friendship long after Coles left the Yukon.

"He was very personable and had quite a future in politics,” Cable recalled.

"He was a born politician. Unfortunately, he got on the fast-track and couldn't get off in time.”

Coles had a community-conscience, Cable noted.

After he completed his sentence, he "went around and talked to kids about the dangers of drugs.

"He wanted to pay back the community.”

When he was elected party leader, he was only in his mid-20s.

"He was with the Young Liberals, and I guess he caught the political bug then,” Cable said.

"He was a quick learner ... a Mr. Personality.”

Coles remained strongly committed to the Liberals even after he relocated to Drayton Valley.

He was involved with Liberal consituency affairs there, served on Drayton Valley town council, and was a volunteer in various sports.

He leaves Michelle, his wife of 23 years, two sons and two daughters, eight grandchildren and his mother, Betty.

One son pre-deceased him.

– With a file from Ashley Joannou.

By Jim Butler

Star Editor

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