Op-Ed: That’s an Aussie question!

Columnist Bonnie Kogos displays a newspaper containing her recent column discussing Austin Hunt’s mentorship.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Author Bonnie Kogos was a close personal friend of the Hunt family and the late Austin Hunt in particular and was in regular communication with the late politician up to and including the days shortly before his passing. Ms. Kogos has shared an edited version of the Sudbury Star column she penned two weeks ago about her friend for Island readers..

by Bonnie Kogos

What a legend of joy, respect, and friendship that Aussie has brought to Manitoulin, Ontario and Beyond!  

Thirty years ago, l moved to Manitoulin, part-time, to Kagawong, two months at a time.  My other busy life was as a business and leisure travel agent and writer in NYC. I had met my then-fiancé, Charlie, on a dock in the British Virgin Islands. We were so different, and laughed at our differences.

His Old Kagawong Farmhouse on Route 540 was so old, that weeds grew out of the walls on the building, and how I laughed. And I cleaned, and cooked and walked and discovered so much about Kagawong.  This was so different than my New York apartment and my work getting clients to all parts of the world. 

Daily I walked to the back of the property, which overlooked the Kagawong River. I marveled at the grazing cows across the street, afraid to get closer to look at them.  Learning, even to drive a pick-up truck. In New York City, I took a taxi or the subway or walked to places. 

It felt strange and wonderful for this busy New York City based travel agent, to move into quiet Manitoulin with my then-fiancé to the idyllic hamlet of Kagawong. And did I have a lot to learn about Manitoulin!

And I depended on The Manitoulin Expositor to keep learning, and still do!

Each afternoon, after working on the chapters of my first book, I walked down the hill to the Post Office. 

Aussie Hunt was my first friend on Manitoulin.  He often allowed me to sit comfortably in the back room while he answered phones, dispensed mail, and helped people. I sat, respectfully, quietly, grateful to be included in his community.

I adored Aussie’s constant cheerfulness and kindness,. And I was able to spend time with his lovely wife, Nite, and dear sons, Wayne and Michael.    

Every summer, I’ve dragged Aussie out in front of the post office to take our yearly photo. The drawer is full. 

In October 2018, Aussie retired as Mayor of Billings Township. Old Mill Heritage Centre Curator Rick Nelson arranged a spectacular evening of tribute at the Kagawong Park Centre.  It was a standing room only event, with people convening from far and wide to offer their tributes to the Mayor. I flew up from NYC to be there. 

Dear Sharon Alkenbrack’s been on Billing Township Council for six terms over the years.  A well-respected entrepreneur, her Manitoulin Tea Company offers delicious specially blended Hawberry Tea, Mad Chatter Tea and Moonlight Magic Tea. 

 Sharon has surely seen the hamlet grow into a thriving visitor’s destination. As an honoured speaker at this tribute, Sharon brought the house down with this amazing Aussie story. 

 “During a Council meeting, we were discussing tourism and what we could do to encourage more visitors,” she said standing at the podium. “We talked about how many visitors came to Tobermory, and how they had sunk a ship and that provided more interest for the tourists.  Then one of the councilors said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could sink an old battleship?’  At which point, Aussie said ‘I’ll see what I can do!’   We all looked at him, and I said ‘Aussie, who are you calling? You can’t just pick up the phone and call the navy!’  Well, Aussie just laughed. At the next council meeting, Aussie told us, ‘Well, we can have an old battle ship.’  The councilors looked at him. I said ‘How do you know this?’  Aussie said, ‘I called Jean.’  ‘John who?’  Aussie said ‘Jean.’  ‘Okay, Jean who?’  Aussie said, ‘Well, Jean Chretien, the prime minister, of course!’ ‘You called the prime minister and how long before the office called you back?’ ‘Well, they said he was in a meeting but he called back in 10 minutes.’”

“Bonnie, we’ve always thought of Aussie as our mayor.   Aussie is ours, forgetting his many years of political experience in Ottawa, and being on a first name basis with many of our prime ministers,” Sharon told me. “He knew Jean Chretien, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Lester B. Pearson, and knew Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he was a boy. “

  Sharon and I both sighed. “Doug and I’ve known Aussie since we owned property on Maple Point before our home was built. Aussie gave 55 years of his life, doing what he felt what was right for the community. And he always worked to accomplish things that would not upset people. He’s been good at that.”

“When we had to make decisions that might upset people, Aussie advised us, make them and then you have to let things go. Just don’t take it as a personal affront.  Because what was done and accomplished was good for the community of Billings.”

“When we opened the museum,” Sharon said, “We utilized articles and things that Aussie saved. Many things had been stored in The Havelock Hotel. Three floors. I was surprised and delighted to view all the historical items that existed in the hotel without anyone knowing. Pictures of him with Lester B. Pearson and Jean Chretien putting up voting signs for Pierre Elliot Trudeau.  He told me he slept at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa when he was there helping.” 

Diane Fraser, a member of the Museum Committee, told me, “Aussie always had entertaining stories to share about the history of Kagawong and Billings Township. If there was something you needed to know about Canadian history, local history, Aussie was the go-to person.”

Rick Nelson, our terrific Old Mill Museum Curator, told me “When the museum opened in 2007, Aussie and our amazing team of volunteers were so encouraging, and have enabled us to keep it going. And if anybody had had a question about Billings Township, we’d say, “That’s an Aussie question!”

This past summer, with half of the season lost to Covid,” Rick said, “Why, 3,600 people came to explore The Empress of Ireland Shipwreck Exhibit.”

These last years, I’ve phoned Aussie regularly, to share just a moment of friendship, fun and silliness. 

We’d laugh and I’d wait to hear him say…” And how are we?”