Manitoulin mourns Austin Hunt’s passing

The late Austin ‘Aussie’ Hunt

Much-admired Billings politician played key roles in many Northern Ontario important initiatives

KAGAWONG – The measure of a man is not presented by his physical stature, but rather by the shadow he casts upon the world in which he strides. Austin Hunt passed away peacefully at his Kagawong residence on Wednesday, November 10 in his 96th year, having left his mark, not only upon his beloved community of Billings Township, but indelibly marked across our nation and, most especially, Northern Ontario.

Mr. Hunt was born in Kagawong at his family’s Havelock Hotel on December 29, 1925. He would later go on to assist his father in running the hotel as he grew up, but he is probably most familiar to Billings residents as the longtime Kagawong postmaster and their reeve (later mayor).

As a child, Mr. Hunt went to a small school in Kagawong (the old stone building at the top of the hill) and later to high school in Gore Bay.

Mr. Hunt’s son Michael recalled stories of his father taking turns driving his fellow students to school in Gore Bay. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for being behind the wheel that would, along with the hotel, become Mr. Hunt’s entry into federal politics.

“My dad loved to drive and he loved to go for drives,” said his son Michael. “Even later in life, when I asked if he wanted to go for a drive he would be down and into the car before I even got ready.”

He recalled a story told by Expositor (then Recorder) scribe Tom Sasvari about a time a massive blizzard had socked in municipal representatives and reporters at a meeting being held in Mindemoya.

“Everybody was worried about driving back to Gore Bay and Little Current in the snowstorm,” recalled Mr. Hunt. “My dad said he was driving to Kapuskasing because there was a meeting there he didn’t want to miss. People couldn’t believe it, because he would be driving the entire way through the teeth of the storm. Tom called the next day to ensure he had made it.” Of course, he had and remained unruffled by the experience.

Mr. Hunt met future Canadian Prime Minister  Lester B. Pearson while working at the Havelock Hotel and the pair struck up an immediate friendship.

“Mr. Pearson was impressed with how my dad seemed to know everybody,” said Michael Hunt. “My dad became his driver from then on.”

The Pearson family made a presentation to Aus Hunt at History Day in Kagawong (2017) during Old Mill tribute to Prime Minister Lester Pearson.

Mr. Hunt took on the role of campaign manager for Mr. Pearson from 1962 to 1965 during that worthy’s tenure as Manitoulin’s MP, then the riding of Algoma-East.

Mr. Hunt served as an honorary pallbearer at Mr. Pearson’s funeral.

Mr. Hunt married Mary Catherine Williamson of Mindemoya in 1947, popularly known a “Anita” (then shortened to ‘Nite’) and the couple went on to have two sons, Wayne in 1952 and Michael in 1956.

Mr. Hunt entered politics himself in 1953, successfully running for Billings council and later going on to serve as reeve from 1968, and then mayor until his retirement in 2018. He was the longest serving politician in Canada, outpacing his older rival Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion by a significant lead.

It is fitting that Billings council and community named the main marina facility in Kagawong in Mr. Hunt’s honour a few years ago, ‘The Austin H. Hunt Marina.’

His accolades and accomplishments are legion.

On March 7, 2019 Austin Hunt received the Order of Canada from Governor General Julie Payette for his seven decades of public service.

He served as the liaison to the prime minister’s office (PMO) for community infrastructure across Northern Ontario

He served on the executive and as a board member of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) for many years and in 2003 was named to the AMO Honour Roll. He served as president of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM), the Northern Ontario Development Council, president of the Rainbow Country Travel Association, president of the Manitoulin Municipal Association (MMA), was an inaugural board member of the Northern Ontario School of Medical School, served on Laurentian University’s board of governors, was a charter member of the Manitoulin Tourism Association (now Destination Manitoulin Island), was a charter member of LAMBAC, as well as the Manitoulin Planning Board and he served as a board member of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission—as well as being the longest serving politician in Canada.

“I have always loved my community and I wanted to get involved,” Mr. Hunt said of his time in office. “I have thought that this was a great way to be involved in things.”

Rick McCutcheon, retired publisher of The Manitoulin Expositor, was a long-time friend and admirer of Mr. Hunt.

“I got to know him over 40 years ago,” recalled Mr. McCutcheon, “when I was first involved with the MTA, of which Austin had been a founding member in the early 1950s. It was a role he kept until his retirement from the board seven or eight years ago. He was made a lifetime member and honorary director by the MTA board at that time.”

“Austin was a wise and prudent man,” continued Mr. McCutcheon. “He would listen to discussions on topics the MTA was considering and then often contribute a thought that the rest of us had not considered, but which was clearly the right way to go.”

Mr. McCutcheon recalled one of Mr. Hunt’s foibles. “He would generally, and predictably, arrive slightly late for meetings,” he said. Mr. McCutcheon fondly recalled board members saying ‘Austin will be here soon’ after the meeting had formally gotten underway. “He always did,” said Mr. McCutcheon. “If he wasn’t going to come due to a scheduling conflict, he invariably let the board members know.”

Austin with Landon Pearson

“Austin Hunt was a real gentleman, and to my mind, a model politician and community leader,” said Mr. McCutcheon. “The friendly competition between Austin and Hazel McCallion (long-time Mississauga councillor and mayor) was something he enjoyed. Ms. McCallion might have been older but Austin had been in public life quite a bit longer.”

Following his passing, accolades began flowing into The Expositor from friends and colleagues.

“It was an honour to work with Aus for over 20 years and a privilege to call him my friend,” said Ken Noland, chair of the Manitoulin Municipal Association and Reeve of Burpee and Mills. “His wisdom at the municipal level was invaluable.”

“Obviously Aus’ death was a shock to me and the entire community,” said Ian Anderson, successor to Mr. Hunt as mayor of Billings Township. “At the age of 95 it was somewhat expected but it doesn’t alleviate the shock. Aus was such a respected man, both as a municipal politician and a person. He will be missed. I never heard any person speak ill of Aus or his family. He was a pillar in the community and was well known on Manitoulin Island and beyond.”

“It was an honour and a privilege to work with Aus,” said former FONOM president, retired Kapuskasing mayor and new chair of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission board, Al Spacek. Mr. Hunt was a charter member of that organization, serving on the FONOM board up until his retirement from public life. “He was on the board for the 12 years that I was on the board, including the eight years I served as president.”

Mr. Spacek lauded Mr. Hunt’s immense wisdom and said the veteran politician always exuded a “quiet authority” that stemmed from his considerable experience. “I always appreciated his support,” said Mr. Spacek. “He always had a way of framing things in a positive light.”

On a personal side, Mr. Spacek recalled Mr. Hunt’s willingness to share stories of the time Mr. Hunt spent as a close confident of the late Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. “I always liked listening to his stories.”

“Aus Hunt was a rare and special person,” said 

Brent St. Denis, former Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP and friend, recalled that, “his relentless pursuit of goals for the benefit of his community was a marvel. My many visits with Aus over the years when I was the MP always left me in awe of his selfless and genuine willingness to serve others. I don’t recall a single time he ever asked anything for himself—it was always for his community whether it was Kagawong, Billings Township or Manitoulin Island.”

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Austin Hunt,” said Carol Hughes, current Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP. “During his over 60 years in municipal politics, Austin was a staunch advocate for his community, for Manitoulin Island and for Northern Ontario. He was a true gentleman with a keen sense of humour and he will be dearly missed by those of us who were fortunate to have worked with him. His legacy will live on. I extend my deepest condolences to his sons Michael and Wayne and to his community.”

“A remarkable man with service to his community at heart,” said Mike Mantha, Algoma-Manitoulin MPP. “Mississauga had Hurricane Hazel and we had the Wizard of Oz.”

“We are saddened to hear the news of Austin Hunt’s passing,” said Pearson family spokesperson Barbara Hannah. “What a legacy of public service! He devoted most of his life to serving his country and his community. To my knowledge, Aussie was the longest serving municipal politician in Canadian history.” 

“Mr. Hunt worked closely with my grandfather, Lester Pearson, from 1948, when Mr. Pearson became an MP in the riding of Algoma-East, up until 1968 when Mr. Pearson retired. In recognition of their friendship, Austin served as an honorary pallbearer at Mr. Pearson’s funeral,” shared Ms. Hannah. “I had the honour of finally meeting Mr. Hunt in Kagawong in 2018. I enjoyed every minute listening to Aussie tell wonderful stories of working with my grandfather those many years ago. A visit I won’t forget. Austin Hunt was a loyal public servant and community builder; a good and committed man who made an impact on those around him. He valued community engagement, loved his country and worked tirelessly to make this land a better place. On behalf of the Pearson/Hannah family, I extend our deep condolences to Mr. Hunt’s sons, Michael and Wayne, and other Hunt family members. This is a sad day for Kagawong and Manitoulin.”

A long time Liberal member, former candidate and now chair of the Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing Federal Liberal Association Heather Wilson said, “I could always count on and look forward to Austin’s wisdom, wit and smile. He was ‘the’ Liberal voice for me with his tremendous history with the party in this area. It will be impossible to go to Kagawong and not think of Austin on his step with his smile and intelligent advise. I will miss him greatly.”

The late Austin ‘Aussie’ Hunt

The stories and legends of Mr. Hunt are indeed legend, but one of The Expositor’s favourites was relayed by Billings Councillor Sharon Alkenbrack on the occasion of a party held in his honour after his retirement from politics about the time the municipality was planning a celebration to mark  their breakwall.

“Someone mentioned we could use a destroyer as part of the celebration  and Aus said he could look into that,” recalled Ms. Alkenbrack. “At the next council meeting Aus said we can have the destroyer, but the only thing is we have to pay for the cleaning afterward. We asked Aus who he had called about this and he said, ‘Jean.’ ‘Jean Chretien?’ we asked. He said, ‘yes, he called me back 15 minutes after I called. He had been busy and couldn’t talk to me when I called him’.”

With Mr. Hunt’s passing, Manitoulin has lost its greatest champion and one of its true giants, but he has left our world a much better place for having walked among us.

Mr. Hunt is survived by sons Wayne (Christine Johnson) and Michael and is the cherished grandfather of Austin and Quinn. He will be sadly missed by many nieces, nephews and friends and is predeceased by his wife Anita and brother Dr. John Hunt (Muriel).

He will be sorely missed.