Birthday party fetes Austin Hunt, Canada’s longest-serving politician

The guest of honour Aus Hunt cuts into his birthday cake. photo by Sharon Jackson

Billings mayor turns 90

by Sharon Jackson

KAGAWONG—Family, friends, colleagues and members of the community came together to celebrate the 90th birthday of Aus Hunt who, among other achievements, holds the distinction of being the longest serving municipal politician in Canada.

A sunny winter afternoon welcomed well wishers as they celebrated the mayor’s birthday. Master of Ceremonies Sharon Alkenbrack (deputy Mayor for Billings Township) thanked everyone for coming. Mayor Hunt’s actual birthday was December 29.

Born in 1925, Councillor Alkenbrack shared with the audience that the mayor’s birth year was the year of the Ox, according to the Chinese calendar. Some of the characteristics of people born in this year are that they are hard working, committed, like a routine and don’t like to throw anything away.

Former Liberal Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Brent St. Denis presents Aus Hunt with a congratulatory letter from current Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau  during a celebration of Mr. Hunt’s 90th birthday held at the Kagawong Park Centre. photo by Michael Erskine
Former Liberal Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Brent St. Denis presents Aus Hunt with a congratulatory letter from current Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
during a celebration of Mr. Hunt’s 90th birthday held at the Kagawong Park Centre.
photo by Michael Erskine

Councillor Alkenbrack confirmed each of these traits of the guest of honour. When Austin Hunt was only five-years-old he was given the job of shoveling the steps and turning on the lights at St John’s Anglican Church. He still does this task to this day. When the Old Mill Heritage Centre opened some years ago, many of the articles came from his home.

As a token of their gratitude for his guidance, Mayor Hunt was presented with a framed Jenna Carter original from the staff of Billings Township by Councillor Alkenbrack. The print includes “all the buildings in our town that are special to him.” They include St John’s Anglican Church, the Havelock Hotel and Hunt’s General Store.

Several people representing Island municipalities, boards and levels of government sent birthday wishes, or were in attendance to wish Mayor Hunt well in person.

Central Manitoulin Mayor Richard Stephens shared a story of members of the community who gathered at the Park Centre in 1998 to celebrate the 90th birthday of his aunt Ruth Tustian who was a school teacher in Gore Bay and later MSS (Manitoulin Secondary School).

Mayor Hunt, then Reeve Hunt, was in attendance at that party to honour Ms. Tustian on behalf of the Township of Billings where she and her husband Bill made their home.

“Fast forward to 2016,” said Mayor Stephens, “we are both back here again and this time to celebrate the 90th birthday of our guest of honour: Aus Hunt. I am pleased and honoured to be here to recognize a man who has been involved in Island politics since 1953.”

LAMBAC manager Michael Addison recognized Mayor Hunt for 28 years of “guidance and inspiration” while serving on the board.

Mr. Addison shared the story of meeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, being introduced as “Mike from Manitoulin Island.” Mr. Trudeau told him that his father, the late Prime Minister Elliott Trudeau, used to tell him a story of when Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson retired. His father asked him what was the first thing he was going to do when he retired. Mr. Pearson’s reply was that he was “going to Manitoulin Island to visit Aus Hunt.”

“We are very proud to have you on our board whose growth and success depends on its people through their dedication and commitment. It is a pleasure to work with you,” stated Mr. Addison.

Elva Carter, representing the Manitoulin Planning Board, thanked the organizers for including them and shared that she was “glad to participate.” She shared with the audience that Mayor Hunt has held position on the board since 1975 and is not only the longest serving member but also its only original member.

Councillor Alkenbrack and fellow Councillor Barbara Erskine presented the guest of honour with several framed letters from his colleagues including MP Carol Hughes and MPP Michael Mantha, who were unable to attend.

Mr. Mantha’s letter stated in part, “wishing you every happiness that this special day brings as you celebrate this momentous occasion.” His congratulatory letter included the following quote: “our birthdays are feathers in the board wings of time” by Jean Paul Richter.

A plaque from Ms. Hughes reads: “On this special occasion, Austin, please accept my best wishes for a most enjoyable birthday celebration. The best part about reaching 90 is that you have more people to love.”

Ms. Hughes also wrote a letter to Mayor Hunt which read in part: “not only have you been the patriarch of your family but that of your community as well. You have dedicated most of your life to the betterment of your community and country, having assisted Lester B. Pearson during his time in office and having spent more than 62 years in municipal politics. Your contributions have brought about much change and you are truly deserving of the accolades you are receiving today.”

“It may take you a while to blow out all the candles on your cake which are lit in your honour,” continues Ms. Hughes, “but as you do so remember that each and every candle represents the knowledge and inspiration you have shared with those you have touched.”

While the cake did not hold any candles, it did get people’s attention. Ms. Alkenbrack indicated that it was to say ‘Happy 90th Birthday Aus from the Township of Billings.’ Instead it read ‘from the Liberal Party.’ A laugh was shared among everyone as most were all aware of Mayor Hunt’s backing of the party for many years.

As the newest member of council, Councillor Erskine paid special honour to Mayor Hunt by thanking him for the warm welcome she received and for his mentorship.

Letters from Aime J. Dimatteo of Fednor, Alan Spacek of FONOM (Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities), the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell (Lt General for Ontario) and the Right Honourable David Johnston (Canada’s Governor General) were also presented to Mayor Hunt.

Lee Hayden, mayor of Gordon and Barrie Island, presented a gift on behalf of the MMA (Manitoulin Municipal Association) commenting that the “huge municipal representation is indicative of the magnitude of respect you command.”

Brent St Denis, former Liberal MP for Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing, was in attendance, sharing “it’s a pleasure to be here.” He made reference to Mayor Hunt’s support of MP Maurice Foster and commended him for his ability to never appear to get down or become discouraged.

Before it was time to cut into the cake, Mayor Hunt said a few words of welcome and thanks. As recently as three days prior to the party he was unaware that he was going to be the guest of honour to celebrate his 90th. Several people said “see you on Sunday,” but he failed to understand the reference. When he was asked to bring some memorabilia to be displayed, he was quick to gather up several photos and other items which were available for viewing at the back of the room.

“I really appreciate everyone who came today to say good things about me. When you’re in politics, you don’t always hear that,” said the long time mayor, father and grandfather.