He went from the trap line to the Manitoba legislature, and on Sunday Oscar Lathlin was remembered by his colleagues as a giant among his people.

Manitoba's Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs died unexpectedly Saturday night at his cottage on Clearwater Lake, near The Pas. He was 61.

Lathlin had a history of respiratory problems. On Saturday night he called one of his staff members to say he wasn't feeling well, and that he was having difficulty breathing.

The staff member called 911 and headed to the cottage, but by the time she got there, Lathlin had already died.

Lathlin was one of the first and few aboriginal leaders in the Manitoba Legislature.

In 1990 he was elected the New Democratic Party MLA for the constituency of The Pas, a post he held until his death.

While in opposition Lathlin served as Northern Affairs Critic, and later Native Affairs Critic.

In 1999, under an NDP government, he was appointed to Premier Gary Doer's cabinet, initially as Conservation Minister, and later as minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs.

"Many people underestimated this man. Many people didn't like his style. But indeed he had a way of getting things accomplished," his cabinet colleague, Eric Robinson, told CTV News.

In opposition Lathlin is credited with helping shape the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry.

As a minister he created The People's Economic Development Fund, which gives First Nation Communities a share of provincial gambling revue.

Minister Eric Robinson will take on Lathlin's portfolio for the time being.

Oscar Lathlin was born in 1947 at Opaskwayak Cree Nation in The Pas.

Before serving in the Manitoba Legislature, he worked for The Pas Band and in 1985 was elected their chief.

Friends say The Pas was always home for Lathlin, and that he drove there every weekend from Winnipeg.

Lathlin was married with a son and a daughter.

There is no word yet on funeral arrangements.

With a report from CTV's Jon Hendricks