Former Manitoba NDP premier Howard Pawley has died at age 81, Premier Greg Selinger's office has confirmed to CBC News.

"We join Manitobans in mourning the loss of our former premier Howard Pawley. Throughout his life, Howard fought for equality, social justice, and the rights of all peoples," said the premier in a statement on Wednesday.

Pawley served as premier of Manitoba from 1981 to 1988 and was the MLA for Selkirk, Man. for nearly two decades. 

As an MLA, Pawley was known for consensus building and quiet diplomacy. He was responsible for shepherding Manitoba Public Insurance through the legislature while Edward Schreyer was premier.

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Former Manitoba premier Howard Pawley has died at 81. (University of Windsor)

After his political career, Pawley began teaching at the University of Windsor in 1991, where he was a professor emeritus until his death.

An emotional Eugene Kostyra was stunned to hear the news of Pawley's death in a Windsor, Ont. hospital. Kostyra served as finance minister under Pawley.

'Starting to fail'

"I knew he was starting to fail. I saw him about a year ago. I have a good friend in Windsor who every few days keeps me in touch with how he's doing, and it's been very tough as I understand," said Kostyra.

Former cabinet minister Judy Wasylycia-Leis said she is heartbroken over Pawley's death.

"Howard Pawley was my friend, leader and mentor," she said.

"I knew that things were not looking good for him, but we all held out hope that he would be able to hang on and get through this latest serious issue with respect to his congestive heart problems."

'Howard Pawley was my friend, leader and mentor.' - Former cabinet minister Judy Wasylycia-Leis

In recent months Pawley had been physically unwell but his mind remained sharp, said Kostyra.

"From when I first met him in the '60s, right through to the time I had the honour of serving under him, he was always engaged," he said.

"A lot of people kind of talk over you, or talk through you, but he had a genuine engagement with people." Pawley would have the "same conversation" with a farmer as he would a cabinet minister, Kostyra remembered.

Wasylycia-Leis also praised Pawley's singular approach with people of all backgrounds and incomes.

"I don't ever think you could find a politician who was more decent, honest or humble. And Manitobans loved him because he was ... so open and caring, but at the same time he was tough as nails," Wasylycia-Leis said.

"A lot of people are a little bit superficial at times. But he was never that," said Kostyra.

Pawley remained "very committed" to the New Democratic Party all his life, he said, with his early political beliefs rooted in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).

"He goes back to the CCF days, his early involvement, and how he translated from understanding ordinary people into his political beliefs and what he did while his time in government.

He had the ability to look at the big picture but still was so incredibly grounded," said Kostyra. 


Statement from Premier Greg Selinger:

"We join Manitobans in mourning the loss of our former Premier Howard Pawley. Throughout his life, Howard fought for equality, social justice, and the rights of all peoples. His leadership and progressive values led to changes to Manitoba's labour code to ensure that workers are paid fairly, regardless of their gender, and the inclusion of sexual orientation to Manitoba's Human Rights Code. He was also the minister responsible for the creation of Manitoba Public Insurance in 1971, which continues to provide the lowest auto insurance rates in the country. Our thoughts are with his family and friends. Manitoba lost a true champion of social justice today."