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Former Saskatchewan politician Chris Axworthy during his swearing-in as attorney-general in the Roy Romanow government in Saskatchewan in 1999.Courtesy of family

A pragmatic politician who went door-knocking even outside of election periods, Chris Axworthy represented Saskatchewan voters federally for the New Democrats for 11 years before switching to provincial politics.

The British-trained lawyer, who won his first federal election in 1988, died at the age of 76 on Aug. 11 at the May Court Hospice in Ottawa. He had brain cancer.

Active in the New Democratic Party, Mr. Axworthy went to Ottawa after defeating long-time MP and cabinet minister Ray Hnatyshyn in the riding of Saskatoon–Clark’s Crossing.

Mr. Axworthy’s victory, which saw him defeat Mr. Hnatyshyn by more than 5,000 votes, left him a bit sheepish.

“I know I didn’t win because the voters disliked Ray,” he said at the time. “It’s Brian Mulroney they voted against.”

Prime minister Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won a second majority in 1988, but the New Democrats led by Ed Broadbent had their best results at the time, winning 43 seats.

When Mr. Hnatyshyn was sworn in as Canada’s governor-general two years later, Mr. Axworthy liked to joke that the new viceroy never thanked him for the job promotion.

“The man was quick and glib and witty,” said Marcus Davies, a close friend and former senior political adviser. “He was genuinely jaw-droppingly smart.”

In 1993, Mr. Axworthy was re-elected, becoming one of only nine NDP MPs elected that year. Two years later, he campaigned for the leadership of the federal NDP but withdrew when it became clear he wouldn’t win. In 1997, in the new riding of Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, he defeated the Reform Party’s Elwin Hermanson.

“He had a kind of charisma,” said Mr. Davies, now a lawyer in Saskatoon. “He was magical in a small group, but he was never a good public speaker.”

Christopher Axworthy was born on March 10, 1947, in Plymouth, a port city in southwest England, into a working-class family. His father, Roy, worked as a television repairman. Chris won a scholarship to the London Metropolitan University and, when he earned his bachelor of laws, he became the first in his family to get a university degree. He received another scholarship to complete his master of laws degree at McGill University.

For Mr. Axworthy, Canada was refreshing; he loved the country’s openness and believed its class system was less oppressive than the one in England. After graduating from McGill, he taught law at the University of New Brunswick. Three years later, in 1977 he took a tenure-track position at Dalhousie University in Halifax. While at Dalhousie, he researched the legal and economic effects of co-operatives. In 1984, he was asked to join the new Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan. He became its inaugural executive director.

He was elected to the board of directors of Saskatoon Co-op in 1985 and served as its vice-president. The retail co-operative is locally owned by its members who elect a board of directors to govern the business. Co-operatives played a key role in Saskatchewan’s social and economic development. Farmers struggling to gain control over their local economies formed the first co-operative enterprises at the turn of the 20th century to market their agricultural produce and get the goods and services they needed.

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Mr. Axworthy, left, and Prince Edward Island Attorney-General Jeffrey Lantz field questions at a news conference concluding a two-day meeting of justice ministers in Moncton, on Feb.14, 2002.GREG AGNEW/MCTN

“He was never pretentious, and very moderate,” said Mike Luff, a close friend and national co-ordinator of government relations at the Canadian Labour Congress. “He loved debating public policy, but he was always focused on how you implement those ideas to make a positive impact on people’s lives.”

A good-looking man who wore tailored suits from designer men’s wear retailer Harry Rosen, Mr. Axworthy was a social democrat who didn’t respect what he called “the chattering class” in Ottawa. He felt they spent too much time talking and not enough time acting.

In the early 1990s, he was an early supporter of the right to die. He introduced a bill to make it legal for a doctor or caregiver to actively assist a patient in dying.

“He didn’t shy away from contentious issues,” Mr. Luff said.

In 1997, while serving as the NDP’s justice critic, Mr. Axworthy was brutally beaten and mugged on an Ottawa street. He was walking home alone after a postelection celebration when two youths struck him from behind and stole his money. He was found bloodied and dazed on the sidewalk, taken to hospital and treated for severe cuts, bruises and a concussion.

“[The attack] didn’t change his views,” Mr. Davies said. “He didn’t lose sight of the human side of crime. He believed you have to attack the root causes of crime.”

When he wasn’t working, you might find him at a local pub, often drawing a crowd around him as he talked and listened to stories. A sports fan, who loved watching soccer, baseball and even billiards on television, he would also organize impromptu trips from Ottawa to Montreal, with colleagues, to see a Montreal Expos game.

In 1999, after 11 years in federal politics, Mr. Axworthy sought a provincial NDP nomination. He had long admired Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow’s pragmatic government. After Mr. Axworthy won a by-election and then a general election, Mr. Romanow named him attorney-general and minister of justice.

When Mr. Romanow resigned from politics in 2001, Mr. Axworthy sought the leadership of the provincial NDP. He finished second to Lorne Calvert, who kept him on as attorney-general and also appointed him minister of intergovernmental affairs and minister of aboriginal affairs. Two years later, Mr. Axworthy resigned from cabinet and his seat in the Saskatchewan Legislature, having felt he never developed cohesion with the premier. In 2003, he returned to the University of Saskatchewan.

Politics was still in his blood. But after 14 years as an NDP politician he believed his ideas were now more aligned with those of the federal Liberal Party. He ran and lost twice as a federal Liberal candidate in the riding of Saskatoon-Wanuskewin.

In 2008, he became dean of the University of Manitoba’s faculty of law, and two years later was the founding dean of the new faculty of law at Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops. In 2013, he left the university and later returned to Ottawa with wife, Michelle Van De Bogart, for her work.

Having spent years rebuilding a convertible British roadster, Mr. Axworthy enjoyed taking his vintage sports car on trips all over Canada.

Mr. Axworthy leaves Ms. Van De Bogart, his partner of 28 years; his sisters, Deborah Axworthy and Janet White; one niece, two nephews and his stepdaughter Myfanwy Van Vliet.

“He died a socialist,” Mr. Davies said.

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