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Former federal defence minister Paul Hellyer dies at 98

Paul Theodore Hellyer, the influential former federal defence minister, has died at the age of 98. Hellyer fell and struck his head on June 19, losing the ability to walk and temporarily losing the ability to speak. He convalesced at St.

Paul Theodore Hellyer, the influential former federal defence minister, has died at the age of 98.

Hellyer fell and struck his head on June 19, losing the ability to walk and temporarily losing the ability to speak. He convalesced at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto for about a month before returning home. He died there on Aug. 8.

“The doctors were surprised he recovered as much as he did,” said Josh Hellyer. “My grandfather didn’t want to die in a hospital, he wanted to be at his home with his family. We celebrated his 98th birthday together just two days before he passed, and he made his goodbyes to everyone individually. His was a life well lived.”

Born near Waterford, Ont., on Aug. 6, 1923, Hellyer took an interest in aviation at a young age, studying aeronautical engineering, earning a pilot’s licence and building training aircraft for the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. He also served as an artillery gunner in the Canadian Army late in the conflict.

Hellyer was once the youngest member of the House of Commons, elected to Parliament in 1949 just shy of his 26th birthday, and in the same year he earned his bachelor’s degree. His interest in defence matters led to serving as parliamentary assistant to the defence minister and then associate minister of national defence in the government of Louis St. Laurent. Hellyer was briefly unseated after the 1957 election, but returned to the House of Commons after a byelection in 1958.

Hellyer rose to prominence as a critic of the Diefenbaker administration and then as minister of national defence in Lester B. Pearson’s cabinet. Few defence ministers would be as consequential as Hellyer, who urged Canada to accept nuclear weapons after several years of acrimonious public debate on the matter in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Hellyer was also responsible for the controversial decision to unify and integrate the service branches of the Canadian military into a single organization, the Canadian Armed Forces. Despite the opposition to the idea at the time, the military remains a unified force to this day.

Hellyer’s time in cabinet led to a brief friendship with U.S. president John F. Kennedy. His lifelong fascination with aircraft and cutting-edge technology led president Lyndon B. Johnson to invite Hellyer to fly in Air Force 1 for a demonstration of the aircraft’s state-of-the-art communications equipment.

“He was always interested in technology, it kept him young,” said Josh Hellyer. 

In the late 1960s, Paul Hellyer spearheaded a federal task force on housing and urban development, one that ultimately recommended against the then-popular trend of wholesale demolition of older housing stock and its replacement by large housing projects. A dispute with Pierre Trudeau over the implementation of the plan resulted in Hellyer leaving cabinet and eventually sitting as an Independent before accepting an invitation to join Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives.

Hellyer also holds the distinction of having challenged both Trudeau and Joe Clark for the leadership of the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties, in 1968 and 1976, respectively. He returned to the Liberal party in 1982. 

Hellyer also created two federal political parties during his life: Action Canada in 1971, and the Canadian Action Party in 1997. Hellyer advocated a unique blend of civic nationalism, antiglobalization and monetary reform policies, attracting supporters from across the Canadian political spectrum. He was also the longest-serving member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada at the time of his death.

In addition to his political career, Hellyer was active in journalism, becoming one of the early investors in the Toronto Sun and writing a column for the newspaper from 1974 to 1984. He was also a panellist on the CBC’s "Front Page Challenge," and wrote approximately 20 books.

In his later years, Hellyer became an outspoken and influential voice in the global community of UFO enthusiasts, speaking openly about his belief that UFOs were likely of extraterrestrial origin and that extraterrestrials were visiting the planet. Hellyer advocated that the governments of the world that he believed had recovered alien technologies from UFO crashes disclose their findings, as he thought a concerted effort to investigate these technologies could provide solutions to the pressing problems of our era, namely climate change.

“Whether it was green energy, economic reform or housing policy, my grandfather was always looking to make Canada better and more self-sufficient,” said Josh Hellyer. 

“Canada was the first love of his life. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who loved this country as much as my grandfather did.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 13, 2021.

Taylor C. Noakes, The Canadian Press