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John Ibbitson

Meet Hudak’s booming – but minimized – voice of rural Ontario Add to ...

Randy Hillier is a big man who perpetually wears suspenders and a mischievous grin. That grin chased across his face at an all-candidates meeting, when someone asked him if it’s true he doesn’t believe in climate change.

The climate “changes every time I go outside my house,” Mr. Hillier replied in a baritone voice made for talk radio. But as for whether human activity is behind global warming, he inclines to the minority view “discounting and discrediting much of the rhetoric that comes along with climate change.”

Such opinions may explain why Mr. Hillier, Progressive Conservative MPP for Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington, has been repeatedly and visibly absent when his leader, Tim Hudak, has visited Eastern Ontario during this election campaign.

And it may be why Mr. Hillier declined repeated requests for an interview.

The Ontario Liberals sometimes cite Mr. Hillier in their efforts to brand Mr. Hudak as “Tea Party Tim,” claiming the Conservatives have embraced the values of the strident, populist, anti-government movement south of the border.

They had reinforcement from a former Conservative premier, Ernie Eves. When Mr. Hillier helped an ally unseat veteran MPP Norm Sterling in a nomination battle last month in next-door Carleton-Mississippi Mills, Mr. Eves decried “those few individuals who decided that the Tea Party version of Ontario politics would be good in that particular riding.”

But while Mr. Hillier may help the Tory Leader secure his rural base, his views are on the margins of his own party, and Mr. Hillier is a marginal figure as well.

The truth is, there is no discernible Tea Party within Ontario politics. There is only a dwindling rural population “who have been bypassed by the urbanization of Ontario,” observes Jonathan Malloy, a political scientist at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

Some within it embrace, “a rural populism” that is “suspicious of the urban experts who know what’s best for us,” he believes.

Randy Hillier is their champion.

Lanark County, in the northern end of a riding that stretches from just west of Ottawa to Lake Ontario near Kingston, consists mostly of small towns, small farms, hills and bush. Bill Porteous’s roots in the county go way back. He owns a saw mill up in the Lanark Highlands, north of Perth.

Mr. Porteous embodies the values of the Ontario Landowners Association, which Mr. Hillier founded in Lanark County and which has spread across the province.

“I don’t care what you do, as long as you do in on your side of the fence,” is Mr. Porteous’s creed. That is Mr. Hillier’s creed, too.

He and Conservative MP Scott Reid, who represents the riding federally, have campaigned for a constitutional amendment to protect property rights. In his writings, Mr. Hillier rails against the “ collectivist cage of consensus” that inhibits debate on what he sees as the excesses of environmentalism, multiculturalism, publicly-funded health care and the like.

This has earned him the devoted support of people like Mary and Robert Barclay, a retired couple who live at a road junction known as Hopetown.

“He’s not afraid of anybody and he tells it like it is,” Mrs. Barclay declares.

Supporters like these couldn’t care less about a brief brouhaha that erupted when political opponents learned Mr. Hillier’s wife was in a fight with Revenue Canada over an alleged non-payment of taxes.

That devotion among rural voters may secure Mr. Hillier’s re-election, though he is being challenged principally by Liberal candidate Bill MacDonald, who believes voters are tiring of Mr. Hillier’s one-track message of land rights and less government.

But the greater threat to Mr. Hillier, and to the old bones of the Ottawa Valley, may be the arrival of the “citiots,” as Mr. Porteous calls them, who are migrating into rural Eastern Ontario from Ottawa and Kingston.

“They don’t understand our way of life,” he protests. And they bring bureaucrats with clipboards traipsing onto peoples’ land and telling them what they must and can’t do.

One day there may be enough citiots in Lanark County to vote out one of the few remaining voices of an Ontario that is almost lost.

One day there may be no voice for the old Ontario at all.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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