As we were both members of the “Class of 2011” when we first elected to Parliament I soon found I was often in the company of Jim Hillyer. Jim was a quiet and unassuming man; that is until you engaged with him. Anyone who runs for public office often has a passion for ideas and Jim was certainly not lacking in this regard. He had strong views on how we could support communities, families and what the proper role of the state should be in defining those areas. Jim’s views often leaned towards protecting individual rights and increasing liberty. He was a fresh thinker who was able to listen to other viewpoints and pushed a number of us not to simply accept the status quo.
Unknown too many was the fact that Jim’s French was tres bien- (very good). Yet he seldom ever let on that he completely understood everything that was being said in Canada’s other official language, which probably would have come as a shock to many. He studied French, he told me, because he enjoyed learning and wanted to get a better understanding of other perspectives. Learning for Jim never stopped. He and I shared a love of reading, particularly by audiobook, and it was very common after a debate or caucus meeting, to see him moving to his next meeting with earphones on, listening to many works of history, both fiction and non fiction.
When we were first elected I remember Jim and I being part of what we proudly referred to as the “Conservative corner caucus” – sitting on the side of the House opposite of Government with the Opposition. We gave ourselves that name as it was more preferential then the more traditional term known as ‘the rump’ whereby the overflow of majority Government MPs go and sit on the opposition benches. While some within the corner caucus felt it was discouraging to sit apart from our majority caucus, Jim never complained pointing out we had some of the best seats in the House to view and keep track of what was going on.
Jim was one of those who quietly pushed the envelope, even if it rattled cages or made some uncomfortable in Ottawa. I can give no greater example of this than his motion 520, which Jim tabled on June 11, 2014 and breathed new life to the concept of asymmetrical federalism in Canada. By proposing an amendment to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to include Property Rights which would only apply to his home province of Alberta, he offered a different view on how constitutional change could occur by a grassroots bottom up processes. This of course contrasted with the top heavy forms of constitutional changes that we are more accustomed to as observed in the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords.
It was Jim’s contention that if his motion was adopted by Parliament with a reciprocal motion passed by the Legislative Assembly of Alberta , that was all that would be necessary. In Jim’s mind this debate would be started by backbench MPs and MLAs and would come down to a vote on a simple proposal - in this case property rights subject to a yay or nay vote. If passed this obviously would have had all sorts of policy implications- well beyond just property rights. Potentially an issue that would touch all levels of Government and inevitably be subject to a constitutional challenge given this was a piecemeal attempt for amending the constitution in the most unconventional of ways.
The motion never did end up being debated in the House of Commons and eventually Jim proceeded on with another piece of legislation, his point having been made to challenge the status quo by offering a different perspective on how constitutional reform could occur.
Due to multiple surgeries from an initial skiing accident, the last few years of his service Jim carried out his Parliamentary duties by electric scooter and crutches; yet I never heard Jim once complain or express remorse for his situation. I would imagine the long nature of the 2015 election posed problems for Jim, but I doubt he would ever raise them. He was quiet and relentless in this regard.
One subject we only talked about a few times was in the area of family and his religion. While our conversations were often interrupted by votes and points of order, I know he was a proud husband, a loving father and a person of profound faith.
To some Jim will only be known as someone who was once accused of making hand gestures in the House of Commons. From my perspective Jim was much more than that. While we shared a love for reading I cannot help but reflect that much as a book cannot be judged by the cover there was indeed much more to this quiet unassuming man from Alberta who I was proud to call my friend: Jim Hillyer. God bless the Hillyer family at this most difficult time.
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Dan Albas is the Member of Parliament for the riding of Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.