You’d be hard pressed to find someone with political roots as deep as Lyle Kristiansen.
He was named after a politician. His grandparents attended the founding convention of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, forerunner to the New Democratic Party. His parents met at a CCF social evening. His earliest memories were of political meetings in his family’s living room and listening to the voices of CCF leaders.
So it’s little surprise Kristiansen grew up to be a politician himself, serving two terms as New Democrat MP for Kootenay West, from 1980-84 and 1988-93.
Kristiansen, who died June 18 in Sechelt at 76, was also the last Nelson resident to represent the area in parliament. Two weeks before his passing, he shared a quote with his daughter from American labour leader Eugene V. Debs: “I don’t want to rise above my class, I want to rise with my class.”
“Lyle said this was important to him because unless all of us raise our standard of living together, none of us are secure,” said Haida Bolton. “As his daughter, this to me means we need to work together as a society to ensure a strong and health middle class.”
A very political family
Lyle Stuart Kristiansen was born May 9, 1939 in Vancouver to Thorvald (Denny) and Hilda Kristiansen, and christened after Dr. Lyle Telford, his parents’ doctor and MLA who later became Vancouver’s mayor.
Denny immigrated to Canada from Denmark in 1923 and worked in Nelson hauling bricks to build Hume school, as a waiter on sternwheelers, and as a cook’s assistant in logging camps before moving to Vancouver in the 1930s.
Hilda’s parents were involved in many social movements including the United Grain Growers and Saskatchewan Wheat Pool in addition to the CCF.
Kristiansen grew up in Vancouver’s west end, and got involved with the CCF’s youth wing as a teenager. He was elected president of the Vancouver Centre constituency association at 18.
He attended the University of BC for two years where he said he “majored in political activity.” During the 1960 provincial election campaign, he met Vera Sharko, who was working on future NDP leader Tom Berger’s campaign.
“Most of our courtship took place at political meetings and protest marches,” she recalled in her memoir, A Very Political Family.
They married the following year — and honeymooned at the NDP’s founding convention in Ottawa, although they came to regret supporting Hazen Argue for leader over Tommy Douglas.
In 1963, Kristiansen was hired as secretary for the New Democratic Youth in Ottawa, while Vera worked for a Hamilton MP. They returned to BC two years later where Lyle stood as the NDP candidate in Vancouver Centre, but finished third.
At loose ends, a friend in the IWA asked him if he was interested in working with the labour movement. He arrived in West Kootenay in early 1967 with a letter of introduction to local IWA president and failed Nelson-Creston NDP candidate Jack Munro. He spent six weeks applying for a job at local sawmills before Stafford Bros. of Harrop finally hired him — although owner Beldon Stafford bet him $20 that he wouldn’t last two weeks.
Kristiansen’s intensely physical job, loading green lumber into railway boxcars, had him vomiting every few minutes. But he soldiered on and won the bet. He subsequently worked at Pacific Logging in Slocan and Kootenay Forest Products in Nelson.
The Kristiansens began organizing for the local NDP, which at that time only had 28 members in Nelson-Creston, 100 in Rossland-Trail and a handful in Kaslo-Slocan.
“We called on each member and asked for ten names of potential members,” Vera recalled. “As each of these potential members was called, we asked for ten more names … We worked non-stop to recruit new NDP members and build an organization.”
By the 1968 federal election, the party had over 1,000 local members. Lyle was campaign manager for Randolph Harding, who won Kootenay West handily.
Lyle declined to stand as a provincial candidate, but Vera was elected to the local school board and helped persuade teacher Lorne Nicolson to seek the Nelson-Creston NDP nomination. Lyle was again campaign manager, but they were unsuccessful. Nicolson ran again in 1972 and was elected.
Lyle was also a director of the West Kootenay Pollution Control Society, which opposed the establishment of a pulp mill on Kootenay Lake and set up the first recycling depot in Nelson. Although it faltered, toward the end they hired a young man from Vancouver.
“He wore a trench coat, a beret, had a short haircut and was full of energy,” Vera wrote. “His name was Gerald Rotering.” Years later Lyle would hire him as his constituency assistant, which Vera said was “the smartest thing we did.”
When Randolph Harding announced he wouldn’t run again, Lyle dithered about trying to replace him — Vera, too, was torn about whether to encourage or discourage her husband. But Lyle finally agreed to put his name forward after someone pointed out only five MPs could be considered blue collar workers.
There were six candidates for the nomination, but Kristiansen won on the first ballot. In the 1979 federal election, he squared off against incumbent Progressive Conservative Bob Brisco in the first of four straight election and lost by 2,000 votes.
Nine months later, Joe Clark’s minority government fell and Canadians returned to the polls. Once again there was a six-way race for the Kootenay West nomination which Kristiansen won on the third ballot. On election night, Feb. 18, 1980, he took an early lead and never fell behind, defeating Brisco by less than 800 votes.
During his first term, Kristiansen participated in the occupation of the David Thompson University library to prevent the collection’s removal. He also arranged funding for the first stages of restoring Nelson’s Capitol Theatre and Streetcar 23.
‘Four years off for good behaviour’
The Kristiansens thought the 1984 election would be an easy victory.
“We had lots of volunteers, loads of money, and Lyle and I were received very warmly throughout the riding,” Vera wrote. However, Brisco prevailed by about the same margin as Kristiansen had previously won.
Kristiansen went around saying he got the next four years off for good behaviour. He returned to Nelson as the city was facing bleak times but poised for a turnaround, partly under the leadership of Gerald Rotering, who was elected mayor.
Kristiansen revealed a theatrical side by acting in three plays — I Always Wanted to Ride a Streetcar, Arsenic and Old Lace (he played an Irish cop) and Cinder Fella, in which he had two silent roles as an Egyptian eunuch and a hockey player.
In 1988, he and Brisco faced off for the last time in the redrawn riding of Kootenay West-Revelstoke; this time Kristiansen won easily. He didn’t seek re-election in 1993. While Rotering was expected to succeed him, he decided not to. Instead Heather Suggitt carried the NDP banner, but lost to Jim Gouk of the then-fledgling Reform Party.
Lyle and Vera retired to Madeira Park on the Sunshine Coast to be closer to family.
A smoker for 50 years, Kristiansen suffered from emphysema and lung cancer. His will to live came partly through recent political developments, such as the federal NDP forming the official opposition in 2011.
“He loved that,” his daughter Haida said. “He was really happy to see the NDP form government in Alberta this year and so wanted to hold on until the next federal election. As soon as he got sick 2½ years ago, he just wanted to make it to the next election. He was preparing a month ago to get his ID updated so he could vote.”
In the last few weeks, Kristiansen contracted pneumonia, which his lungs were too weak to fight. While in hospital, he spoke fondly of the things he got to do in retirement on trips to South Africa and Tanzania: pet a cheetah, kiss a baby rhinoceros, and hug an old tortoise.
Haida said his proudest accomplishments as MP all related to local historical preservation — the SS Moyie (which his father worked on) and Rossland Miners’ Hall in addition to the Capitol Theatre and Streetcar 23. He also specialized in Napoleonic history — and died on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
“My mom will miss having political and historical discussions with him,” Haida said. “His mind was sharp. He was great at debates and could pull up facts like an encyclopedia.”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Kristiansen is survived by sons Eric and Colin, as well as five grandchildren. Details of a service are still being worked out, but it’s expected to be held in Vancouver in a few weeks.