Growing up in the halls of power at Queen’s Park, Kitchener-Conestogo MPP Mike Harris came into politics with a rare understanding of what to expect. The junior politician was swept into office as part of last year’s blue wave, joining the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario’s rise into a majority government that has, at times, invoked comparisons to the mid-90s administration of his father, the former PC premier Mike Harris senior.
A little over a year into his first term in what has been a heady, fast-moving, if at times tumultuous government, the MPP is following in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one. Harris was selected as parliamentary assistant to the minister of Natural Resources and Forestry during last month’s cabinet shuffle by Doug Ford.
Harris’ father similarly found himself earning his wings as a parliamentary assistant in 1983, a little over a year after his election as the member from Nipissing. It’s a position typically given to novice legislators in need of seasoning, putting the MPP in a supporting role to cabinet ministers.
But while Harris senior reportedly bristled at being passed over for a cabinet position over his peers, his son, the member from Kitchener-Conestoga, seemed energized at the prospect.
“I’m really excited about this, actually. My father was the minister of Natural Resources back in 1985,” noted Harris. “It was the year I was born, so it kind of holds a special place in my heart to be able to go ahead and now support our current minister John Yakabuski as his parliamentary assistant. So it’s very exciting, and I’m really looking forward to getting down to work.”
An avid outdoorsman and fisher, Harris saw the role as a natural fit for his interests. He grew up in North Bay before moving to Waterloo, and during his time here has taken in some fishing brown trout in the local waterways.
“I’ve been an outdoorsman for most of my life. I learned how to fish when I was about two-years-old, and it’s something that I’m very passionate about. Whether it be wildlife management, whether it be supporting our hunters, our anglers. Of course our tourist operators,” he said.
“But there’s also the other side of it too: balancing the aggregate business and forestry as well, which has been a longstanding business sector here of course in our province and across Canada. So making sure we have a strong, vibrant natural resources sector moving forward as well.”
In line with the party thinking, Harris keeps one eye to the finances and economy of the province, preferring leaner government spending over the “unsustainable” spending of the previous Liberal government, as critics have often called it. It’s that drive for fiscal responsibility – or budget cuts, as opponents of the Ford government have insisted on calling it – that motivated Harris to enter into politics.
A father of five children, the oldest of whom turns 13 this summer, Harris was wary about entering politics, having been just 10 years of age when his own father became the premier of Canada’s largest province.
“That was one of the reasons why I was always a little bit shy about getting into politics, was how it can negatively affect your family. And of course, five kids: I have to be very cognizant of that,” he said.
“But on the flipside, that was almost the reason, in fact it was really the reason that really drove me to seeking election and moving to where we were now,” he added. “Because I was really worried that the previous Liberal government was mortgaging my children’s futures and generations to come, and I didn’t really want to sit by and say that was OK.”
When Harris’ father first undertook his radical Common Sense Revolution in the mid-90s, he famously said, quite presciently: “By the time we’re done, there won’t be a single blade of grass on the south lawn of Queen’s Park that hasn’t been trod upon by some protester.”
Certainly, 20 years later, the pavement outside the junior Harris’ Elmira constituency office has seen its share of foot traffic. Demonstrations have been held by parents anxious over uncertain OSAP funding, teachers worried by increasing class sizes, and adolescents feeling the dual pressure of dwindling education spending and post-secondary loans.
Local elected officials, meanwhile, have often grimaced at cuts to municipalities, and frequently found themselves locking horns over the government’s austerity measures. And, driving around the province’s regions, you’d be hard pressed not to find signs on residents’ lawns saying “Stop Amalgamation,” as communities worry about the future of their local governments disappearing.
Harris strikes a more conciliatory tone than his father, pointing to a massive debt that has threatened to affect his children’s’ futures, and the long-term success of the province. There’s been some backlash to the government’s policies, but Harris points the government has responded and pivoted to public perceptions. With the legislature out for the summer, Harris will now have even more time to meet with constituents to hear their views and concerns. Overall, though, one year into his term, the MPP from Kitchener-Conestoga says he sees the government going along the right track, with a historic number of bills passed through the legislature bringing real change to Ontarians.
“I couldn’t be happier where we are. We set out with an ambitious goal, we’ve taken plausible steps towards that with the bills we’ve introduced in the House, with the fall economic statement, and then of course with the budget just being released a couple of months ago,” he said.
“I couldn’t be happier with the direction we are going in.”