Scott Aitchison: aspiring Conservative leader 'raised by Huntsville'

·6 min read

OTTAWA — Scott Aitchison started knocking on doors at a young age.

While other kids growing up in the beautiful Muskoka region of Ontario spent their Saturdays on the water, at soccer practice or watching cartoons, Aitchison went house to house making his case.

He was not, at the time, trying to convert neighbours to his political cause. He was speaking to them about the virtues of his parents’ faith group: Jehovah’s Witnesses.

"In many strange ways, my experience growing up and the training that I got as a public speaker came from this organization that actually is fundamentally opposed to what I do now," Aitchison says in an interview.

Now 49 years old, he is one of five candidates hoping to be announced as the new leader of the federal Conservative party on Sept. 10.

The relationship between Aitchison, his family, their faith and their community in the town of Huntsville, Ont., laid the foundation of his political aspirations.

Jehovah’s Witnesses is a denomination of Christianity, but unlike other mainstream Christians, its adherents generally eschew political institutions and anything akin to nationalism.

As a young teen, Aitchison began to pull away from his parents’ religion as he questioned how only one belief system could be the right one. The conflict caused frequent fights with his father.

One evening in November, 1988, his father laid down the law.

"My dad said, 'listen, I don't want to fight anymore, but can you accept at least that it's my house? It's my home. There has to be rules, and you have to respect those rules in my house,'" Aitchison recalls.

So, at 15 years old, he left home.

Aitchison often says he was raised by Huntsville, a town in the heart of Muskoka, where his story spread quickly through the community. The young teen was taken in by the family of a friend. Others in the community also looked out for him and guided him as grew up.

As president of his student council in high school, Aitchison developed an early interest in running for office. His principal, the town’s former mayor Terry Clarke, encouraged him to run for town council.

He never expected to win, but at 21 years old, he was elected the youngest ever member of the council.

"People kept saying, 'Oh my goodness, your dad must be so excited and so proud,'" he said.

He said his father’s actual reaction was far more muted.

"He said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve voted only once in my life,'" Aitchison remembers. "He said, 'I've voted for God's government, and everything else is in direct opposition to that.'"

Aitchison said that hardly fazed him.

But in a way, it was his foray into politics that helped bring Aitchison and his parents closer together again.

He still gets misty-eyed when he remembers the moment, a few days later, when his father congratulated him — something that he says must have been difficult for him to do.

"He was immensely proud that I had accomplished something like that," says Aitchison.

Though he lost contact with many of his other relatives after leaving his home and faith community, he worked hard to maintain a relationship with his parents, even as the gulf between their world views widened.

"They have deeply held and profound beliefs, and I respect that. They respect me," he says of their relationship now.

It’s the kind of reconciliation Aitchison has been preaching for the divided Conservative party to achieve.

After that moment of rapprochement with his father in 1994, Aitchison spent the majority of his political career in municipal politics in Huntsville. He worked as a councillor part time, which is typical in small towns, while also holding down full-time jobs elsewhere in the community before serving two terms as mayor from 2014 to 2019.

Aitchison may not have been a Canadian household name at the outset of the Conservative leadership race, but his name is hard to miss in Huntsville. His name and photo are found on buildings and plaques all around the picturesque town.

A small "mayor's garden" outside of the town's city hall is named in his honour because of the flowers he planted there.

While Aitchison appeared the sober grown-up during an often fractious performance by other candidates in the first Conservative leadership debate, he's more relaxed and playful at home.

It’s easy to spot the locals among the sea of tourists on Huntsville's Main Street one day this summer. They are the ones who greet Aitchison with a wave or a hug as he makes his way through the community.

As he passes by a Coldwell Banker real-estate office where he used to work his day job while serving as a councillor, office administrator Barb Hewittbursts out of the door to chide him for not stopping in to say hello.

On a tour of the town during a reprieve from the campaign trail, he proudly points out projects he helped develop as councillor and mayor that now serve as gathering spaces to bring people together,like the town amphitheatre or dockside park where people can leave their boats and hit a restaurant patio on Main Street.

Aitchison says he learned about the art of consensus-building in Huntsville, first with his family and later with his council.

"It should be a requirement if you want to run for higher office to serve on a municipal council or a school board somewhere, because it is a consensus model," he says.

Another former mayor of Huntsville, Hugh Mackenzie, says municipal politics can teach anyone a lot about finding common ground and winning people over, but Aitchison is a true expert at it.

Of course, he built that up over time. He brought a certain brashness to his youthful political première, says Mackenzie, who served as mayor while Aitchison was a councillor.

"There was a time when he was a little less patient than he has been in the last few years," he said.

And even after Aitchison became mayor, his assistant, Crystal Paroschy, came to recognize when he needed a strategically timed Snickers chocolate bar on his desk.

"He does better when he’s fed," Paroschy jokes.

Now that Aitchison is a member of Parliament and Paroschy is the town’s deputy clerk, the two share a sibling-like bond, she says.

When Aitchison started working in Ottawa after being elected to represent Parry Sound-Muskoka in 2019, he found the atmosphere of the House of Commons far less warm. He wondered how anyone could get anything done when differences of opinion created such deep divisions that people were not even willing to listen to each other's points of view.

"I wondered to myself, had I made a mistake? Because the place was so broken," Aitchison said.

The division he saw within the ranks of the Conservative party made him throw his name into the race, he said.

If polls are to be believed, Aitchison is unlikely to find a path to victory. But that won’t stop him from knocking on colleagues' doors in an attempt to pull the party together, he says. "I'm just gonna keep doing what I'm doing."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 2, 2022.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press