They agree that the awkwardness is what makes it fun.
Ontario MPPs Ernie Hardeman and John Vanthof are uncle and nephew. They work on the same file but sit on opposite sides of the house.
When Vanthof, the NDP’s agriculture critic, rises to talk about policy or ask a question, he refers to the Progressive Conservative agriculture minister as “Uncle Ernie.”
“It’s a balancing act,” Vanthof told HuffPost Canada. “I oppose his government on many policies very strenuously. But Ernie and I try … to never, ever bring it to a personal level.”
The two used to spend more time together. But about 40 years ago, Vanthof’s family moved to northern Ontario, where he now represents the riding of Timiskaming—Cochrane. His parents sold the family farm to Hardeman, who now lives in the house where Vanthof was born.
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They don’t celebrate holidays together anymore, given the distance. But they have the occasional dinner, Hardeman said, when they’re both in Toronto for work.
“His need to help the farmers … is just as great as mine,” Hardeman told HuffPost. “So much of what we do, we’re on exactly the same page.”
It’s good fun to attend events with Vanthof and hear him joke about how his uncle is the reason he became an NDPer, Hardeman said.
“John and I have a good time badgering each other about our relationship and our differences,” he said. “John often says, ‘We do politics the way it should be done. I don’t agree with him all the time and when I don’t agree, I don’t mind telling him. But when we do agree, we can work together to get it done.’”
John often says, ‘We do politics the way it should be done.'Ernie Hardeman
They mostly talk about agriculture and the family, the minister said, and avoid the issues where they disagree most strongly.
Once, just after Vanthof was first elected in 2011, family members coaxed them into having a debate. Relatives were gathered together to celebrate their anniversary of immigrating to Canada from Holland.
“We had a wonderful debate. But at the end of that little debate, I don’t think there was anyone in the room that could tell the difference between his answers and mine,” Hardeman said.
The whole family is conservative except Vanthof. And he was, too, until the late 1990s when he joined a fight to stop an abandoned mine from being turned into a landfill near northern Ontario’s Kirkland Lake.
At the time, his uncle was the minister of agriculture under premier Mike Harris.
“There were some things that I felt were going wrong. And I didn’t feel the Conservative government was doing what a government should be doing,” Vanthof said. “At that point the only people who actually, in my opinion, stuck their necks out for the local people were NDP.”
The NDP first asked Vanthof to run in 2007 and he said yes.
“My family was surprised, my friends were surprised, everybody was surprised,” the MPP said. “To this day, some people are still wondering what happened.”
He said cracking jokes eased the tension.
“When I told my best dairy farming friend that I was going to run for the NDP … He looked at me and says, ‘Vanthof, I’ll bet you 1,000 bucks you won’t do that.’ And I said, ‘I’ll consider that a campaign donation,’” he said with an explosion of laughter.
Vanthof and Hardeman disagree, naturally, about whether politics is more polarized today than it has been in the past.
“Our political climate — maybe not yet in Ontario, but it’s getting there — has become so polarized that you can’t actually have awkward, funny conversations, because people get in their corner and try to hit each other,” Vanthof said.
“We need to be able to do that as a society. If we lose that, we’re in big trouble.”
Hardeman said he gets along with Vanthof and his colleagues just as well as he got along with the NDP when he was first elected 25 years ago.
“Outside the legislature, we’re not enemies. We just have different ideologies.”