Whitehorse Daily Star

Friends, colleagues reflect on Ostashek's life

Approximately 200 people gathered Wednesday afternoon to honour the life and achievements of former government leader John Ostashek.

By Whitehorse Star on July 4, 2007

Approximately 200 people gathered Wednesday afternoon to honour the life and achievements of former government leader John Ostashek.

Described as a 'crusty, hard-nosed, outfitter cowboy' who 'bootlegged himself up in life', speakers representing different aspects of Ostashek's life talked of his successes as an outfitter and a politician.

Born in High Prairie, Alta. in 1936, Ostashek was a successful big-game outfitter, purchasing and running a business in the Kluane area in the 1970s.

He later sold the business but continued to fly passengers on tours over Kluane National Park while developing a small farm along Kluane Lake.

Ostashek was acclaimed leader of the Yukon Party before the 1992 election. When Tony Penikett's New Democrats were ousted from office, he refused to take the title of premier and instead reverted back to the title of government leader.

He led the government until 1996, signing off on the Umbrella Final Agreement and the first four land claims in the territory, before losing that year's election to the NDP.

Ostashek sat as leader of the official Opposition for another four years until the Yukon Party was narrowed to just one seat when the Liberals swept to power in 2000. He immediately resigned as party leader and from politics.

Diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the white blood cells, in 2004, he passed away in an Edmonton hospital on June 11 at the age of 71.

Looking around at the guests sitting in the Grey Mountain Room at the Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre, Dan Lang, a former Yukon Party MLA, said Ostashek would be shaking his head wondering what all the fuss was about.

'He was the type of person we need to lead the Yukon,' said Doug Phillips, a former member of Ostashek's cabinet. 'He was honest, he was full of integrity and true to his word.'

Quoting from former Chrysler Corp. boss Lee Iacocca's book Where Have All the Leaders Gone?, ex-Yukon Party cabinet minister Peter Jenkins said Ostashek met the definition of a leader to a T.

Leaders must show courtesy, creativity, be able to communicate, be a person of character, show courage, have conviction, be charismatic, be confident and have common sense, said Jenkins.

A self-taught man with just a Grade 11 education, Ostashek still had a gift for numbers and an ability to look at a government budget and summarize it in terms anyone could understand, said Jenkins.

He was a quick study, agreed Willard Phelps, who sat as an independent during Ostashek's mandate. He was able to master the intricacies of government, likely partially because of his success as a businessman, said Phelps.

'He was second to none when it came to running our government ,' he said.

His time in office wasn't without its challenges. Beyond having to sign off on the UFA, Ostashek also had to manage a minority government, which he managed to keep in power for the entire four years.

'The steeper the hill, the better Johnny O liked it,' said Lang.

There were concerns about Ostashek and his Yukon Party government when they first formed government, said Karen Armour, who served as a land claims negotiator during his tenure.

Ostashek had strong opinions about the direction the claims were going in, Armour said. The Yukon Party had been vocal opponents of the final agreements before forming government.

Ostashek came into office with certain perceptions about the agreements, she said, but it quickly became apparent that the government leader enjoyed being challenged and expected any position to be vigorously defended.

'He was willing to listen and he was equally willing to change his views if he agreed with you, which happened surprisingly often.'

Ostashek understood the importance of concluding land claims and moving forward, Armour said, and the negotiators enjoyed working with him.

It was clear when he supported a position, the office knew when his views changed, and he never undermined the negotiators or micromanaged the staff, she said.

'When you left a discussion with John Ostashek, you always knew clearly where he was coming from. There was no grey area,' said Phillips.

'John had his views on a topic and you better be well-prepared if you were going to change his mind.'

Ostashek was a fair and compassionate person who often had trouble disciplining his staff or letting an employee go, said Phelps.

'He always seemed to want to keep that hidden, keep that soft side hidden, and display the cowboy image to the public,' he said.

It may have been un unwillingness to let those walls down a bit in the public that hurt him politically, he added.

'It was perhaps his vision of 10 years down the road and beyond versus embracing the year within that ended up costing John and the team a second mandate,' said current cabinet minister Elaine Taylor, who served as Ostashek's executive assistant.

Taylor credited her involvement in politics to Ostashek, adding he was a great mentor.

'I learned the merits of holding one's own and at times, perhaps, learned the consequences of holding too firm,' said Taylor.

A lot of people change after they are elected, said Phillips. But not Ostashek.

'John Ostashek was the same man before politics, during politics and after politics.'

Longtime friend and neighbour Ollie Wirth said Ostashek wasn't one to give up and was a good friend.

He recalled a time the two had gone fishing together and Ostashek reeled in a 30-pounder.

'He said, Grab the net, grab the net.' Well, he had one of those little dinky things, maybe for a three-pounder.'

They managed to get the fish into the net, but there was more fish floundering around outside of the net than in it, said Wirth. Floundering, the oversized fish flopped its way out and escaped back into the waters.

'He said, You pot licker!' Wirth told the crowd to loud laughter. 'You lost my fish!'

The next time Ostashek was in Whitehorse, he purchased a new one a 'humongous' one, said Wirth.

'He's coming down to the lake shore with this. He said, You're not going to lose me another one.''

'I miss him very much,' said Wirth.

Ostashek leaves behind wife, Carol Pettigrew, children Jordanna, Rashell, John and Holly, and 12 grandchildren.

None of the Yukon's current leaders of its political parties attended the ceremony, but representatives of all political stripes, past and present, were there.

The memorial concluded with a lengthy musical slideshow highlight Ostashek's private and personal life, showing him as a father, grandfather, politician and outfitter.

The photos included crash-landings of his airplanes, fishing and hunting with family and friends and Ostashek tending to his horses at his ranch.

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