Former Yukon politician John Edzerza died Friday evening at the age 63 in his Whitehorse home after a six-month battle with leukemia.
The former Yukon Party cabinet minister was known to many as a passionate, spiritual man who always spoke his mind.
"We all feel John's passing is too soon,” Allen Edzerza told the Star this morning.
Allen is John's younger brother. They come from a family of 20 children, all born to Grace and George Edzerza in either Lower Post or Telegraph Creek, B.C. They are members of the Tahltan First Nation.
"He had so much more he wanted to do. He's not the oldest in the family, so it seems out of place for him to go so soon,” said Allen.
John underwent two rounds of chemotherapy. During his stay at Vancouver General Hospital, he stopped breathing twice but doctors were able to revive him, Allen explained.
At the beginning of November, he was told there was nothing else doctors could do for him.
John returned to Whitehorse the night before the Yukon Party swore in its cabinet ministers on Nov. 5. He was at the ceremony in a wheelchair.
Allen remembers John as being like any boy growing up.
"He wanted to be one of the toughest and roughest guys in town. He was very competitive.”
There's was a lot of hard times in John's life, Allen admitted.
"Johnny would be the first to tell you he had an alcohol problem.”
He has been sober for the last 25 years.
Allen remembers John visiting miners' houses in Atlin, B.C., where the family grew up.
George ran a game hunting outfit and John would distribute meat to the homes in the community.
He soon became friends with the miners and stayed for a few cups of wine. He was 10 or 12 years old, Allen said.
Allen and John moved to Whitehorse as early teenagers and attended high school in the territory.
John then moved on to Yukon College, where he became a journeyman welder.
Before entering territorial politics, John worked as a councillor for Kwanlin Dun First Nation and then as a counsellor for people dealing with addictions.
He was elected as the Yukon Party member for the riding of McIntyre-Takhini in 2002.
In August 2006, John crossed the floor to become an independent. He told reporters at the time it was a decision "based on doubt.”
There were several factors, including the cull of 56 reindeer and lack of funding for the Burwash Landing school, that led him to mistrust his own party.
He was elected as an New Democrat in the 2006 general election and later switched back to the Yukon Party in late 2009. Elaine Taylor relinquished her duties as environment minister so Edzerza could take on the portfolio himself.
In June of this year, John was diagnosed with leukemia and announced he would not be seeking re-election.
Former premier Dennis Fentie remembered John today as being spiritual and doing what he believed in.
"In the political arena, whether we were adversaries or allies, one thing I always knew is he was a principled man,” Fentie told the Star. "He wasn't one to just blindly follow. He was true to his beliefs.”
Glenn Hart, a Yukon Party MLA who served the same nine years in office as John, said he was a "good guy to work with.”
He could be very quiet, said Hart, but he could also speak his mind when he wanted to get his point across.
As for why he came back to the Yukon Party in the end, Hart said he thinks it's because he never found his "roots” on the other side of the room.
"I think he also came back because he had a better chance of getting projects done,” said Hart.
Colleagues say one of John's greatest successes was lobbying for the Jackson Lake Healing Centre.
Arthur Mitchell, the former Liberal leader, said today John worked on this project no matter what or who got in his way.
"When people talk about someone marching to the beat of a different drum, that's what he did,” said Mitchell. "He was less interested in partisan politics and more in achieving things he thought were important.”
Raymond Sydney, the acting chief of Kwanlin Dun First Nation, said John taught many people in his community life lessons. Although he has many legacies, Sydney said, perhaps the most significant is helping start the healing centre.
"We knew he crossed the floor to the Yukon Party to get that done, and we congratulate him for that,” Sydney said.
NDP Leader Liz Hanson knew John and his family before either of them entered territorial politics. She said there's nowhere in Yukon or northern B.C. that doesn't have some Edzerza family connection.
"He was passionately concerned about the underdog,” said Hanson. "He was a battler. He was always prepared to take on things and say things that weren't very popular, but he thought were necessary.”
She called his life an "amazing journey” with lots of rough patches. He was stubborn and had tenacity after dealing with adversity his whole life, Hanson said.
She noted that this is the third NDP MLA, elected in 2006, who has died. Todd Hardy and Steve Cardiff are the other two late MLAs
"We can't live in the past,” Hanson said. "Our job is to move forward.”
Premier Darrell Pasloski said his thoughts and prayers go out to the Edzerza family.
"It's a sad day for the Yukon,” he said.
Pasloski didn't know John for more than a few years, but said he knew him as a quiet man who was very spiritual.
"He literally got in at 11 p.m. the night before our swearing-in,” he said. "It meant a lot to my fellow caucus members, and it meant a lot to me.”
Allen talked to John for the last time four days before he died. He was unable to speak for the last two days.
"In that last month, he helped the whole family come to terms with his death,” Allen said.
He and John talked at length about the Creator, he continued.
"John said he was ready for whatever the Creator brings.”
There will be a public viewing at the Heritage North Funeral Home (412 Cook St.) from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.