Former President of Alberta Legislature Gene Zwozdesky Died


The former president of the Alberta legislature, Gene Zwozdesky, has died. He was 70 years old.

David Bloom / Postmedia, archive

Gene Zwozdesky, a respected and admired former president of the Alberta Legislative Assembly and six-term MLA, died Sunday.

"From his service to our province, the Ukrainian community and the music of Alberta, speaker Gene Zwozdesky did a lot, helped many and was taken too early," Premier Rachel Notley tweeted Sunday afternoon.

Zwozdesky died of cancer on Sunday morning. He was 70 years old.

Born in Nipawin, Saskatoz, Zwozdesky moved to Alberta as a child and lived in several small towns before settling in Edmonton.

A teacher, musician, dancer, entrepreneur and avid volunteer, Zwozdesky was first elected to the Legislature in 1993 as a Liberal representing the Edmonton-Avonmore walking in southeast Edmonton. After re-election as a Liberal in 1997, he crossed the room to progressive conservatives in 1998.

Zwozdesky served as Progressive Conservative Minister for Health and Welfare, Aboriginal Relations, Education and Community Development. He was a speaker from 2012 to 2015. He was defeated in the provincial elections of 2015 by Denise Woollard of the NDP.

Tributes flooded social media on Sunday with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying that Zwozdesky's contributions to Alberta and its Ukrainian community "will always be remembered."

Heather Klimchuk, ex-PC MLA, has known Zwozdesky for about 40 years, through politics and the involvement of his children in Ukrainian dance. He was a mentor to her when she ran for office in 2008, she said.

The veteran MLA taught Klimchuk three things: "Be kind, be gentle and be kind," she said with a laugh on Sunday night.

He was drawn to politics through a love of public service and especially loved serving as president when he had to make some tough decisions, she said.

After the 2015 election, he went beyond the call of duty to help train new MLAs and was present for the takeover of the NDP government, she said.

"He served very well and certainly inspired me," Klimchuk said. "I hope he inspires the next group of people to get elected, our candidates who are working hard everywhere, are kind and respectful."

A fabulous mandolin player and ukulele, Zwozdesky would play with MLA PC Richard Starke and his accordion at caucus retreats, she said. One of his favorite memories was when Zwozdesky organized an MLA choir, which sang Christmas songs at the roundabout of the legislature.

"Captivating man"

Although many Albertans know Zwozdesky from his political career, John Pichlyk's souvenirs are from the 1970s and 1980s, when Zwozdesky was a dancer and musical director of the Ukrainian dance company Shumka.

He was a joyful perfectionist, sometimes revising thousands of folk melodies to find the right tone to express the emotion that choreography should convey, said Pichlyk, Shumka's artistic director from 1982 to 1996.

"(He was) a very captivating man," he said. "You just threw away the logic and jumped to try to create a common goal."

Zwozdesky was knowledgeable and passionate about Ukrainian history and culture, and he willingly guided other artists, he said. Pichlyk said that one of his greatest compositions for Shumka was music for a "hopak", often presented as a triumphant and energetic ending.

"When you hear that song, I see the man who celebrated life to the fullest," Pichlyk said. "I see the man with the staff in his hand. He is directing that orchestra to a rhythm that is feverish, going down that trail to a last thunderous final note. And then that little infectious smile comes out. He is sitting in the hole, he looks at the dancers and has that boy wink.

On his 70th birthday in July, Zwozdesky said he was still composing, playing and volunteering with 21 organizations, including the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada. Sunday, the day he died, was the orthodox Christmas Eve – an important date for Ukrainian Orthodox Christians.

He leaves his wife Christine Zwozdesky, two children and three grandchildren.

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