British Columbia

B.C.'s first environment minister, Jim Nielsen, dead at 79

Nielsen died early Wednesday morning, in New Westminster’s Royal Columbian Hospital, according to his daughter. His children are remembering him not only for his public service but for his dedication to his family.

Nielsen remembered by his children for dedication to province and home life

Former B.C. politician Jim Nielsen died Wednesday at age 79. (CBC)

Former politician Jim Nielsen, who was B.C.'s first environment minister, has died.

Nielsen died early Wednesday morning, in New Westminster's Royal Columbian Hospital, according to his daughter, Debra Tomkow. He was 79. 

Nielsen died suddenly, Tomkow said. "It really shocked us."

"He was very much a family man," she added. "His number one priority, always, was us."

But as a public figure, Tomkow said her father was a brilliant politician and administrator.

"He was very much about the people … ensuring that his role focused on the community and what was best within that, instead of making people happy," she said.

Tomkow said her father relished his time as a minister — especially his later appointment as a health minister.

"I think he really felt he could provide positive results in that role," Tomkow said. "I believe history does show that."

From media to politics

Born in Moose Jaw, Sask., in 1938, James Arthur Nielsen moved to Richmond, B.C. in his early high school years, Tomkow said.

He spent many years as a talk radio host in the Lower Mainland before being elected MLA for Richmond in the 1970s.

"He very much cared about what was happening provincially at that time," Tomkow recalled. "He was very much encouraged by many people to seek a political position."

Nielsen's radio success was a great help to his political career, she said, because it gave voters a sense of where he stood on the issues and what he was passionate about.

His son, Darin Nielsen, recalls that his father was extremely kind to those listeners.

He says one, a patient in the former Riverview Hospital, a mental health facility, was invited over for dinners several times.

"Maybe he had a gruff outside appearance, but inside he had a heart of a teddy bear," Darin Nielsen wrote of his father in an email to CBC.

Jim Nielsen addresses the media as environment minister in the 1970s. (CBC)

Headed several ministries

Nielsen's stint as environment minister was notable not only because he was the province's first, but, as even he admitted in a 1999 interview, his Social Credit Party was largely ambivalent toward environmental protection.

Appointed to the post in 1975, he recalled former minister Phil Gaglardi calling B.C. "too big to pollute."

"Many people did not see environment and economy comfortably hand in hand," he recalled.

His answer to that problem? "You just ignore a lot of people."

After spending three years with the environment portfolio, Nielsen served three years as minister of consumer affairs and five years as health minister all under then-premier Bill Bennett.

After politics, Nielsen worked as a public speaker and newspaper columnist. He spent his last years living in Langley.

He is survived by his wife, eight children and according to Tomkow, 23 grandchildren.