MANITOULIN—Both long-time Billings Township politician Austin Hunt and First Nation filmmaker Shirley Cheechoo, of M’Chigeeng, were named as Order of Canada recipients by Governor General Julie Payette just after Christmas.
“I was very surprised when I was told I had won this award,” stated Mr. Hunt, long-time mayor of Billings Township in an interview with the Recorder last week, upon his earlier being named as one of 103 new appointees to the Order of Canada. “I am very very honoured to have been named for this award.”
Ms. Cheechoo told The Expositor she was shocked when she was notified of being appointed to the Order of Canada. “I didn’t know what to say—it was very foggy and a very moving moment and I think I said thank you many times over. I would like to thank the person who nominated me in person, but I don’t know who that is. Miigwetch, miigwetch. It’s absolutely a tremendous honour. I am so thankful for the work I get to do with young people, and to be recognized for the work you do is a real commendation.”
Mayor Hunt had been nominated for the award by the Billings Museum Board, and had received a slew of supporting letters, and congratulation letters from many dignitaries, colleagues and friends.
One of the congratulatory letters came from Barbara Hannah, granddaughter of former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. “On behalf of the Pearson family, we would like to extend our congratulations to Austin Hunt on becoming a recipient of the Order of Canada. A great honour for a man who spent much of his life in service to his country and community, most recently as the Mayor of Billings Township, a position he held longer than any other mayor in Canada.”
“On a personal note, Aus was Mike Pearson’s right hand guy for 20 years when the former prime minister was MP for Algoma from 1948-1968,” wrote Ms. Hannah. “I was thrilled to finally meet Aussie in Kagawong these last two summers and hear his stories of working alongside my grandfather. Such respect between the two of them. Austin is truly a deserving recipient of this great honour.”
Carol Hughes, MP for Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing wrote “I am so extremely pleased that Austin is receiving the Order of Canada. He has made a real impact on his community and the region with such a long record service that is easy to understand how this is well-deserved.”
Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, on December 27 announced 103 new appointments to the Order of Canada. Recipients will be invited to accept their insignia at a ceremony to be held at a later date.
Mr. Hunt was cited, “for being one of the longest-serving elected officials in Canadian municipal politics as mayor of his community.”
“The Billings Museum Committee was honoured to sponsor the Order of Canada for Mr. Hunt and delighted to hear of the Governor General’s announcement,” a statement read. “We would like to acknowledge the awarding of the Order of Canada to Mayor Hunt was made possible after a lot of people lobbied Rideau Hall on our behalf. We would also like to thank the folks at the municipal office in Billings for their continued support throughout the nomination process. Congratulations to Mayor Hunt for this much deserved honour!”
In its letter of support for Mr. Hunt, the Museum Board wrote on May 5, 2018, “on behalf of the Billings Museum Board I would like to submit our Mayor Austin Hunt for consideration for the Order of Canada.
“To our knowledge, Mr. Hunt is the longest serving Mayor and the oldest (93 years old) in all of Canada. He has a deep belief in a type of public service that is directed to those most in need; it was dedicated to the proposition that government works best when it helps people to help themselves. He also showed how settlers were able to work together with First Nations on community projects.
“In addition, Austin served with former Prime Minister Lester Pearson when Pearson stayed at the Hunt family hotel in Kagawong, Ontario. Mr. Pearson needed a driver and Austin readily volunteered. He found that Austin knew how to deal with people and how to get things done in a quiet but competent manner-a useful skill in politics. Austin worked his way up from various positions in the Liberal party executive for the riding of Algoma-East. In the 1962, 63 and 65 elections he served both as Mr. Pearson’s Campaign Manager and as his Official Agent in addition to being President of the riding Liberal Association.
“When Mr. Pearson died in late 1972, the Pearson family recognized the closeness of the relationship by making him an honorary Pall Bearer,” the museum board wrote.
“Austin believes that civic engagement is more important that partisan politics. He worked tirelessly in numerous community associations to show that what counts in this country is not where you live but what you can contribute to making community life better. He took this principle forward and in his own self-effacing way remade many civic and economic associations.”
The museum letter noted Mr. Hunt’s service and efforts with many, many local and provincial associations and organizations. In local elected office, he has served continually on council from 1953. He was elected reeve in 1968 and has been re-elected continuously since that point. The position of reeve was formally retitled in 2010 and he served as mayor until the municipal elections in 2018, nonetheless making him “we believe the longest serving elected official in municipal politics in the country.”
Among the many supporting letters for Mr. Hunt was one was provided by Steve Paikin, anchor and senior editor of TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin, who is also an officer of the Order of Canada. As well, he is a summer resident of Kagawong and friend of Mr. Hunt. He wrote in part, “I am writing this letter in support of Austin Hunt, whom, I believe, deserves recognition for a life of public service to the people of Northern Ontario.”
The job of reeve of Billings was something Mr. Hunt had for more than half a century. “That alone is testament to the contribution he has made to his constituents. It also makes Mr. Hunt the longest-serving public official in Ontario today,” wrote Mr. Paikin.
“But it’s not just politics. Mr. Hunt and his son Mike run the town of Kagawong’s only general store. Kagawong’s 400 citizens depend on him for their very sustenance. He has also been the postmaster since 1972, is a former justice of the peace, and was harbourmaster and wharfanger for Kagawong for 40 years,” wrote Mr. Paikin.
Editor’s note: Please see future edition of the Recorder for a profile on Ms. Cheechoo.