50 years later, two lions of the legislature are still hanging in there

Bill Davis and Robert Nixon faced off against each other in provincial elections in the 1970s. Now, they’re both in their 90s — and should be regarded as legends
By Steve Paikin - Published on Aug 03, 2021
Former premier Bill Davis (left) and former Ontario Liberal Party leader Robert Nixon. (Courtesy of Steve Paikin)

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Half a century ago, they were two of the most ferocious opponents on the Ontario political stage. Under other circumstances, they might have been great pals, given how much they actually had in common. 

Bill Davis won his first election in 1959 at the tender age of 29 and almost instantly, many predicted that he was a guy to watch. The newly elected MPP had his photo snapped with former premier Tom Kennedy and the current premier of the day, Leslie Frost. The caption read: “Past, Present, and Future.” His father, A. Grenville Davis, was the local Crown attorney in Peel County and the idol of his middle child, Bill. 

Robert Nixon entered politics in a byelection in 1962 after his father, who’d held the Brant County seat for 42 years (a record that still stands), died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 70. The locals urged Robert to pick up his father’s torch, and he did.  Nixon similarly revered his father, who’d been the last Liberal premier of Ontario (in 1943) before a four-decades-long Tory dynasty took over. (He also revered his older brother, Jackson, who was killed in action during World War II.)  

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Davis’s politics were moderate. So were Nixon’s. Both men loved people and were great politicians on the hustings. Even though they represented ridings that trended from exurban to rural, they both felt perfectly comfortable in any part in the province (although Nixon used to joke that his favourite view of Toronto was the one he saw in his rear-view mirror as he drove back to his beloved St. George). 

an older man holding a baby while a younger man looks on
Robert Nixon with his son, John, and great-grandson Nixon Stewart. (Courtesy of Steve Paikin)

Nixon actually got to the leadership of his party well before Davis did, but they were both unusually young when they won their respective jobs. Even thought he’d been an MPP for only five years, Nixon was the hands-down choice of his party to become leader in 1967 — in fact, he was acclaimed. But he had the misfortune of almost immediately being foisted into an election campaign against the legendary John Robarts. 

“I’d barely fallen off the back of a turnip truck, and here I was facing this legend,” Nixon once told me. Robarts won a second consecutive majority government for the Tories. 

Four years later, Davis barely won the PC Party leadership in February 1971 (on the fourth ballot, by only 44 votes), becoming Ontario’s 18th premier at age 41. The events leading up to the October 1971 election made relations between the two leaders extremely tense. 

A few days before calling the election, Davis held a news conference in which he announced he would not extend full public funding to the end of high school for the Roman Catholic school system, despite the church’s years of campaigning. Nixon insists to this day that the two men had an agreement on Catholic-school funding and that Davis torpedoed it because, Nixon says, it was good politics. For Davis’s part, his side of the story was: “Robert may have inferred that, but there was never any deal.” 

In any event, mostly WASP Ontario opposed Catholic-school funding anyway, and the decision by Davis propelled his Tories to an even bigger majority in that 1971 election. 

Four years later, Davis’s government was in disarray. After being in office for 32 straight years, the Tories were on the ropes, beset by scandals, rampant inflation, quadrupling gas prices, and policy decisions that simply didn’t work out. Ten days before election day, the Liberals, still under Nixon’s leadership, had a big lead in the polls. The two men had a punishing leaders’ debate in which they went after each other hammer and tong. Davis later called the experience “gross,” while Nixon blew a gasket trying to eviscerate his opponent. The premier became so flustered at one point, he knocked his water glass over and implored Fraser Kelly, the moderator, to restore order — misnaming him: “Mr. Fraser! Mr. Fraser!” 

But Davis got smart and lucky. He brought in rent controls in the dying days of the campaign, denying the Liberals an issue they’d been using to great advantage. And federal finance minister John Turner, perhaps the country’s biggest Liberal star at the time, resigned his portfolio eight days before election day, sending provincial Grits and their supporters reeling. 

Davis eked out a bare minority government. Because of the unusual vote splits, the NDP under Stephen Lewis actually came second, despite getting fewer votes than Nixon’s Liberals, who placed third in the seat count. That would be three straight losses for Nixon, ending his tenure as party leader (although he would become interim party leader twice more over the next 15 years, after other leaders stepped down). 

photo of two seated and two standing men
From left to right: David Peterson, Jim Bradley, Robert Nixon, and Sean Conway, cabinet colleagues from the 1980s. (Courtesy of Steve Paikin)

Eventually, however, Nixon did become deputy premier and treasurer in 1985 in the government of David Peterson — the first Liberal premier since Nixon’s father in 1943. When Nixon took the oath of office outdoors in front of Queen’s Park in 1985, it was a lovely piece of historic symmetry that made even his opponents’ hearts warm. Everybody liked Bob Nixon and respected his family’s contribution to politics. 

It’s perhaps asking too much for two men who had such a significant place on the Ontario political landscape to be friends because, after all, when two ambitious, talented people want the same thing and only one of them can have it, those are hardly the conditions for a budding friendship. 

But as the years have passed, both men have mellowed about each other, just a bit.  Nixon can still get into a bit of a lather talking about “the sainted Bill Davis,” who bested him three times in head-to-head competition. Davis has always referred to “Robert” (never “Bob,” which everyone else called him) as “a perfectly nice fellow. I always liked him.” 

The two haven’t stayed in touch over the years, although Davis did call Nixon in 2015 to congratulate him on being awarded the Order of Ontario. 

When Davis stepped down in 1985, he’d spent 25 years as an MPP and nearly 14 years as premier — making him the the second-longest-serving Ontario premier ever. Nixon’s political career spanned 29 years as an MPP; for five of them, he was deputy premier and minister of finance (then called “Treasurer”). 

Coincidentally enough, the two men celebrate their birthdays in the same month: Nixon on July 17, and Davis on July 30. To the best of my knowledge, neither has ever called the other on their birthdays to extend greetings or warm wishes. Some rivalries are meant to endure. 

Bob Nixon is now 93 years old. His wife, Dorothy, died several years ago, and he lives in a retirement home in Paris, near the hamlet of St. George, which he and his father and his daughter, Jane Stewart, all represented (Bob and his father Harry at Queen’s Park and Jane in Ottawa, where she was a cabinet minister for Jean Chrétien in the 1990s. Remarkably, someone from the Nixon family represented Brant in politics from 1919 to 2004.)  He still sends out a daily blogpost of musings to friends and supporters on the political happenings of today and the goings-on in his life.  

Bill Davis is 92. His health is frail, but he still spends time with his wife of 56 years, Kathleen, at his three favourite places in the world: his home in Brampton, his condo in Florida, and his beloved cottage on Georgian Bay, which seems to reinvigorate him. In fact, when he was premier, he so hated leaving his cottage to return to Queen’s Park on a Monday morning that the fog frequently mysteriously enveloped Honey Harbour, requiring the cancellation of his helicopter ride back to Toronto — at least, that’s what he told his colleagues back in the day. 

His two favourite former advisers — Toronto mayor John Tory and Hugh Segal, senior fellow at Queen's University’s School of Policy Studies — called him on his birthday last Friday, as they always do. It is not an exaggeration to say both men love Davis. In fact, when I interviewed Toronto’s mayor for a biography I wrote on Davis a few years ago, he teared up at the thought of one day picking up the phone and knowing his mentor would not be at the other end to receive the call.  

Both men have been fortunate to experience something not every politician enjoys: wonderful, supportive family. Both men have children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who continue to inspire them. 

Every year, I note the birthdays of both men on social media and the ensuing tsunami of warm, loving comments is something to behold. Both men have been out of politics for three decades, and, yet, there are plenty of people in Ontario who still remember their contributions fondly. 

They weren’t perfect politicians. They made their share of mistakes. But both represent a time we now look back on with respect and reverence, because politics seemed to be less awful then. Having said that, there was no 24/7 news coverage or social media, two things that have led to the unfortunate toxicity of everything nowadays, especially politics. 

They are now the nonagenarian lions of the legislature.  And I, for one, hope they’re both around for a good long time to come. 

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