OTTAWA – Members of Parliament were preparing Wednesday to do battle over the federal budget, but instead were setting aside their partisan swords to mark the sudden death of Alberta Conservative MP Jim Hillyer.
The 41-year-old died in his office near Parliament Hill early Wednesday, having returned to Ottawa this week following surgery to deal with an infection in his leg.
First elected in 2011, Hillyer kept a low profile in Ottawa as he served on the backbenches of the Conservative government and now in Opposition. His colleagues remembered him Wednesday for his grit and determination.
Hillyer had broken his leg in a skiing accident in 2013 and took three weeks away from his job for surgery and rehabilitation. But he was plagued with infections that required subsequent surgeries. He often walked with a cane and some were surprised to see him back on the Hill this week after his latest hospital stay.
“I used to see him quietly navigating the snow and obstacles on the Hill to make it to QP or votes,” said Tory MP Erin O’Toole.
“I walked with him a few times and saw how frustrating it was, but I never heard him grumble about it. Recently, that same determination led him to get back to Ottawa for the budget despite some other recent health challenges. His quiet dedication is something that will remain with me.”
News of the tragedy spread as MPs were gathering for their weekly caucus meetings on the Hill. Some Conservatives learned when they arrived early Wednesday morning at offices in the same building as Hillyer’s, which is right across the street from the Peace Tower.
“Jim was a valued and hardworking member of the Conservative team, and a passionate advocate for those he represented,” Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said in a statement.
“More than that, he was a dedicated husband and father and a man of strong faith and conviction.”
The Tories left their caucus meeting immediately after the news, filing off the Hill in small groups, stopping for hugs or handshakes from others.
Though Wednesday was supposed to be the first chance for the Opposition to grill the Liberal government on Tuesday’s federal budget, Liberal House leader Dominic Leblanc said the party agreed to stand down. The House was scheduled to instead adjourn for the day after tributes to Hillyer from party leaders.
“People don’t often realize how you develop friendships with and affection for colleagues in every corner of the House,” Leblanc said.
“These are people that you see often, and you joke with, and you discuss with, and you admire for their work or their passion or their conviction, so a moment like this affects everybody in the House of Commons.”
Hillyer had told the Medicine Hat news on Tuesday he felt it was important to be in Ottawa this week for the budget.
“I’m okay,” he said. “I’m still on antibiotics three times each day but they set me up with a portable pump for the week so I could make it to the budget.”
Hillyer was first elected to the House of Commons in 2011 in the Lethbridge riding.
During the campaign, he was dubbed “The Man Who Wasn’t There” by local media after he avoided interviews and refused to participate in public forums. Nonetheless, he won easily, and re-elected last fall in the new riding of Medicine Hat-Cardston-Warner.
Liberal MP Wayne Easter travelled with Hillyer to Taiwan earlier this year. He said particularly enjoyed talking to him about agriculture, an interest they had in common.
“I would consider Jim a friend after that trip even though I didn’t really know the guy before,” he said.
Hillyer was also a cancer survivor and had a bone marrow transplant in 2003.
“There’s time for partisanship in here but there are times when we all come together and I just want to express (wife) Catherine’s and my deepest sympathies to Jim Hillyer’s wife and four kids,” said NDP leader Tom Mulcair.
“It’s a real shock today to everybody.”