Maverick politician Paul Hellyer was seen as a possible candidate for PM – The Globe and Mail

Paul Hellyer established the Canadian Action Party in 1997, becoming an opponent of globalization. The Canadian Action Party folded after a failed effort to merge with the NDP.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

For a time, he was considered a possible future prime minister of Canada. Principled, articulate, supremely self-confident, Paul Hellyer was Canada’s modernizing minister of defence, who shepherded through the unification of the armed forces in 1967.

But within a decade, after failed leadership bids for both the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties, Mr. Hellyer began a meandering, four-decade-long path through Canadian politics and public life. A true maverick, he twice established his own party, moving from the ideological right to flirtation with the NDP, promoting his own form of monetary policy before morphing into an active believer in the earthly presence of extraterrestrial life.

Mr. Hellyer died in Toronto on Aug. 8 after the consequences of a fall. His death came two days after his 98th birthday.

“He was a deliberate contrarian and loved kicking the Establishment,” said John English, a former Liberal MP and biographer of both Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, who said that Mr. Hellyer was “a very bright man” but a politician who always had a different take on things than his colleagues.

“There was never any self-doubt. He had a very broad appreciation of his own abilities,” said Richard Alway, former president of St. Michael’s College at University of Toronto, who knew Mr. Hellyer for 40 years. “He was not what they call a team player and that’s what you need in politics. He was the quintessential individualist.”

Mr. Hellyer, then defence minister, talks to an unidentified seaman during an inspection of the guard in Halifax on Sept. 22, 1966. On Nov. 4, 1966, Mr. Hellyer introduced legislation to amalgamate the Army, Navy and Air Force under the umbrella of the Canadian Armed Forces. The bill became law on Feb. 1, 1968.

The Canadian Press

Paul Theodore Hellyer was born in the Southwestern Ontario farming town of Waterford on Aug. 6, 1923, the second child and only son of Audrey Hellyer and his wife, Lulla. His father was a pioneering ginseng farmer and developed a thriving export trade in the root to Asia.

Mr. Hellyer attended local schools before studying aeronautical engineering in California in the early 1940s. He returned to Canada and served briefly in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Army at the end of the Second World War. He attended University of Toronto and in 1949, just as he completed his BA, he was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal in the Toronto riding of Davenport. He was just 25.

At six-foot-four, the well-spoken young MP cut an impressive image and was quickly seen as an up-and-coming Liberal. In the dying days of the Louis St. Laurent government in 1957, Mr. Hellyer was appointed to cabinet as associate minister of defence. Mr. St. Laurent remained his favourite of the three prime ministers he served because Mr. St. Laurent saw his own role as chairman of the board. “He didn’t try to micromanage the departments,” Mr. Hellyer said.

After losing his seat briefly during the Diefenbaker years, Mr. Hellyer was re-elected in a 1958 by-election and while in opposition, helped forge the Liberals’ new defence policy and urged the acceptance of nuclear weapons.

He returned to cabinet under Prime Minister Pearson as defence minister, shepherding through the unification of the armed forces, aimed at eliminating duplication and modernizing the military for an era of peacekeeping. It was Mr. Hellyer’s greatest achievement but the move remained hugely controversial with members of the Army, Navy and the Air Force, who resented their loss of autonomy.

Federal election day in Toronto on April 8, 1963. Mr. & Mrs. Hellyer enter campaign rooms on Bloor St. after Mr. Hellyer won re-election.

Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

David Bercuson, a professor of military history at University of Calgary, said that unification wasn’t a bad idea but forcing the three services to jettison their ranks, customs, history and uniforms was a step too far. While the consolidation of services such as recruitment remains, the Harper government undid much of the reform by re-establishing the identities of the three services. “It was partially a success,” Prof. Bercuson said of unification.

Yet Mr. Hellyer seldom had any second thoughts. “For eight years, we had the best military organization in the world,” Mr. Hellyer recalled, bemoaning the fact that “subsequent governments began to unravel it and undo most of the good.”

After a stint in the transport portfolio, Mr. Hellyer was a leading candidate to lead the Liberal Party of Canada in 1968 when Mr. Pearson stepped down, coming in second in the first ballot, but refused to ally with fellow right-winger Robert Wuntil it was too late, allowing Pierre Trudeau to win. After an unhappy spell in the Trudeau cabinet, he quit over housing policy, left the Liberals, briefly formed his own movement and later switched to the Progressive Conservative Party. He held on to his old Toronto seat in the 1972 election as a Tory but was defeated two years later.

With no obvious front-runner at the 1976 Tory leadership convention, Mr. Hellyer joined a crowded roster. But he destroyed his chances in a disastrous speech to delegates in which he attacked so-called Red Tories for not being true conservatives. The crowd reacted with boos.

“Paul blew the campaign in one sentence,” admitted Tory MP Jake Epp, a Hellyer supporter. Yet Mr. Hellyer refused to apologize and left the convention before the final vote, where he came in sixth out of eight candidates. He didn’t even stay to congratulate the winner, Joe Clark.

Mr. Hellyer, then-Progressive Conservative candidate for the Toronto riding of Trinity, on Oct. 20, 1972.

Jack Dobson/The Globe and Mail

By 1981, Mr. Hellyer had rejoined the Liberal Party and made failed efforts in 1984 and 1988 to secure Liberal nominations.

In 1997, he established the Canadian Action Party, becoming an opponent of globalization. It folded after a failed effort to merge with the NDP. He then turned his attention to a reform of the monetary system, likened by some to the Social Credit theories of the 1930s, expounding on it in a book. He wrote 20 books in all.

Then in his 80s, he turned to his final passion: UFOs.

“UFOs are as real as the airplanes flying overhead,” Mr. Hellyer testified at a Washington hearing organized by fellow UFO experts in 2014. Mr. Hellyer said that at least four species of aliens have been visiting Earth for thousands of years.

“There are live extraterrestrials on Earth at this time and at least two them are working for the U.S. government,” he testified. He argued that their presence had been kept secret by a cabal of bankers, oilmen, members of the defence establishment and groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations, who had formed a shadow U.S. government determined to destroy democracy.

“A lot of people would quietly roll their eyes and look away because it was regarded as very eccentric,” Mr. Alway said.

Despite his accomplishments in politics, Mr. Hellyer remained an outsider, never attracting honorary degrees and high-profile directorships. A few years ago, investment adviser Chris Snyder proposed that Mr. Hellyer, whom he knew from a weekly prayer breakfast, be named to the Order of Canada. “He was turned down,” said Mr. Snyder, a long-time friend. (Mr. Hellyer was the longest-serving member of the Queen’s Privy Council prior to his death.)

Mr. Hellyer, then transport minister and a candidate for the Liberal leadership, high-steps with mini-skirted supporters at Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 3, 1968. The group marched with a band on the Hill as part of the pre-convention antics in the capital.

Lynn Ball/The Canadian Press

Besides his interests in politics, Mr. Hellyer was a successful businessman. For a time, he ran a dress shop in Toronto and was in the ginseng business. In the 1950s, he bought a small resort on Lake Muskoka called Arundel Lodge, which he ran for many years. It remains in the Hellyer family. He was an early investor in The Toronto Sun, where he wrote a column for 10 years.

But it was in house-building that Mr. Hellyer made his fortune. Shortly after being elected to Parliament for the first time, he heard about a struggling Toronto construction called Curran Hall Ltd. He took control with his family and another partner. It became hugely successful, developing large housing subdivisions in the Toronto suburbs. After an initial investment of $4,000, he sold his stake in 1970 for $2-million.

“He was an interesting guy to have as a grandfather,” said Josh Hellyer, who admits his grandfather’s views were definitely “eclectic.” Yet family was always paramount to him and Josh can still remember how his grandfather always would be there on Christmas morning making eggs and bacon.

He was also a deeply religious man, a lifelong member of the United Church of Canada. “I don’t think he ever missed a Sunday church service,” according to his grandson. He had a powerful baritone voice, which he used in church and as a performer in musical comedy and opera.

His religion helped spark philanthropy, particularly in recent years. Mr. Hellyer was a supporter of ballet, opera, the Yonge Street Mission, a charity dedicated to development work in Lesotho and Indigenous causes.

Mr. Hellyer’s first wife, Ellen, died in 2004 after 59 years of marriage. He leaves his second wife, Sandra; his children, Mary Elizabeth, Peter and David; five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.