12/30/2015 07:28 EST | Updated 12/30/2015 09:59 EST

Howard Pawley, Former Manitoba Premier, Dead At 81

"Manitoba lost a true champion for social justice today."

WINNIPEG — Howard Pawley, a small-town lawyer who rose to become Manitoba's second NDP premier and one of the central figures behind province's public auto insurance system, died Wednesday.

He was 81.

Manitoba's current NDP premier took to Twitter to remember Pawley.

"Manitoba lost a true champion for social justice today," said Greg Selinger.

Pawley was born Nov. 21, 1934, in Brampton, Ont., to Russell and Velma Pawley. He spent his youth steeped in politics and his father was an unsuccessful candidate for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner to the NDP.

Henry Madill, Pawley's maternal grandfather, "was the only socialist for 50 miles around," the premier often bragged.

Then Manitoba Premier Howard Pawley is shown in this 1984 file photo. (Chuck Stoody/CP)

He moved to Manitoba with his parents when his father took a job at the Cockshutt Plough Co. in Winnipeg. The young Pawley completed high school and went on to United College and the University of Manitoba.

He tried his hand at teaching before going into law, a job he figured would allow time to pursue a political career.

"Law gave me an opportunity to do what I wanted and that was to serve publicly," he once said.

In 1957, at age 23, Pawley become the youngest president in the history of the Manitoba CCF and earned his stripes by running in hopeless rural ridings.

It was while in law school that Pawley met and married Adele Schreyer — the cousin of future Manitoba NDP premier Ed Schreyer. It was Schreyer who talked him into running provincially in Selkirk, a riding he held for almost 20 years.

"Manitoba lost a true champion for social justice today."

Pawley served as public works and urban affairs minister and as attorney general under Schreyer. His major achievement was following Saskatchewan's lead to give his province Canada's second government-run auto insurance system.

When Sterling Lyon and the Progressive Conservatives ousted the NDP in 1977, Schreyer resigned and was made governor general by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau. With plenty of seasoned veterans jockeying for Schreyer's job, Pawley seemed a bad bet.

But he received the nod as interim leader from caucus and was quickly confirmed by a convention, although some senior caucus members were so annoyed they bolted to form their own party — the Progressives.

Without their help, Pawley led the party to a smooth victory in 1981.

It was the crowning achievement of Pawley's political career and the fulfillment of a dream, but the former lawyer, who wore wrinkled suits, ate too much pastry and liked to tell of his family's rural origins, never seemed at ease in the job.

The caucus mavericks continued to nip at his heels and one of them eventually drew blood after Pawley's second win in 1986.

After recovering from polls that showed party support at all-time lows during the bitter fight to expand French-language rights in Manitoba — a fight he lost — Pawley managed to eke out a majority government in 1986. Two years later, however, former Speaker Jim Walding, nursing a couple of grudges, joined with the opposition to bring down the government on a non-confidence motion.

Pawley, his voice cracking with emotion, stunned many a few days later when he announced he would not lead the party into the next election.

He tried one more unsuccessful bid for the House of Commons before returning to law and a series of academic jobs at Canadian universities — but not without regrets.

"I do become frustrated when I see so much that should be dealt with and I'd like to be participating in and I'm not," he said.

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