At age 92, Billings mayor Austin Hunt is saying goodbye to politics

By Steve Paikin - Published on September 18, 2018
Austin Hunt and Steve Paikin
Yours truly with Billings mayor Austin Hunt. (Steve Paikin)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the only story worth following in municipal politics these days is the one coming out of Ontario’s capital city. And, yes, the premier’s unprecedented move to use all the powers at his disposal to reduce the size of Toronto’s city council has made these extraordinary times.

But most municipal arenas are not like Toronto’s. In fact, there’s another unprecedented story happening about as far away from Toronto as it gets — if not geographically, then certainly politically.

In 1948, a rising star in Canada’s foreign service named Lester Pearson made the decision to get into politics. He made his first run for elected office in the riding of Algoma East, which included Manitoulin Island, in Lake Huron.

A 22-year-old living in the village of Kagawong (population: fewer than 100 souls) took an interest in Pearson’s campaign. Austin Hunt became Pearson’s eyes and ears on the island, then his local campaign manager and friend — he was even an honorary pallbearer at the former prime minister’s funeral, in 1972.

Hunt also eventually heard the call of public life: he successfully contested his first election in 1953 (for the position of township councillor) and in 1973 became the reeve/mayor of Billings. He has been involved in Billings politics non-stop for 65 years — an astonishing run. Now, at the age of 92, he’s decided it’s time to pass the chain of office to someone younger. He’s unquestionably the longest-serving politician in Canada. (He’s not the oldest to retire from politics in Ontario, of course. That distinction goes to former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion, who stepped down in 2014 at the age of 93.)

No one on Manitoulin Island has any illusions that running Billings is like running a major metropolitan area. The issues are very different: where hunting should be allowed, whether all-terrain vehicles should be permitted on public beaches, whether council can pry a few thousand dollars more out of senior levels of government so the roads can be properly graded.

Throughout the decades, Hunt has managed to lead these efforts satisfactorily enough that no one has been able to defeat him. And plenty have tried.  

Hunt is never hard to find in Kagawong. Chances are, he’s either driving around the village — very identifiable thanks to his eponymous licence plate: AUS HUNT — or sitting on the front porch of his general store (run by his son Michael), available to talk to constituents at any time. “Aussie” still drives the three-and-a-half hours to North Bay to attend meetings of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities. He’s also been a regular presence at the annual Association of Municipalities of Ontario conferences, which he typically attends with his other son, Wayne, who teaches political science at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. (Sadly, Hunt missed his first AMO conference in years this summer. He took a nasty fall and hurt his hip.)

a licence plate that reads AUS HUNT

He’s spent six and a half decades in public life: Is it possible Hunt will actually miss the job?

“I wouldn’t say that I miss the idea of being on call 24 hours a day,” he admits. But in the next breath, he says, “But I probably will miss it. I’ve always been interested in what’s happening, and if something’s going wrong, people call you about it, and you’re not only aware of what’s happening — you have an urge to help whatever’s gone wrong.”

How does Wayne explain his father’s lengthy political record?

“No one sets out to be in public life for a long time,” he says. “But the closest that anyone can come to true happiness is to make your life come together with the life of your community in a meaningful way.”

Austin Hunt’s wife, Anita, died 20 years ago: some believe that politics helped fill the void created by her death.

“It would be fair to say that public life gave him a purpose,” says Wayne. “But he always knew that it was important to be involved in the life of the community.”

Only once did Hunt run for office at another level of politics. In the 1971 Ontario election, he ran for the Liberals in Algoma–Manitoulin but came third, garnering nearly 30 per cent of the vote in a tight three-way race. Premier Bill Davis’s majority government win was enough for the Tories to take the seat. Robert Nixon led the Liberals in that election, and more than four decades later, he tells me he remembers Hunt as “a very decent guy,” adding, “I was happy to have him running for us and was only disappointed I couldn’t help get him over the finish line.”

Austin Hunt with his son, Michael

As the October 22 municipal elections approach, one thing won’t be different in Billings Township: the name “Hunt” will still be on the ballot, as it has been for every election since 1953. This time, however, it’ll be son Michael who is seeking a seat on the township council.

He could do worse than follow his father’s example when it comes to having a successful run in public life.

(There will be a celebration of Austin Hunt’s time in public life on October 7 at the Park Centre in Kagawong, Manitoulin Island).

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