Fifty years ago today, the Bill Davis legend began

After nearly a decade as Ontario’s education minister, Bill Davis led the Tories to four straight election wins, starting on this date in 1971
By Steve Paikin - Published on Oct 21, 2021
Bill Davis waves to the crowd after leading the first ballot during the Ontario PC leadership convention in Toronto on February 12, 1971. (Canadian Press)

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There are plenty of reasons to wish that former Ontario premier Bill Davis hadn’t died back in August, despite having lived a very full and meaningful life. At age 92, he lived longer than any of Ontario’s 26 premiers. 

But one of the reasons I wish he were around is that, no doubt, I’d have called him today to wish him a happy 50th anniversary. And he probably wouldn’t have known what I was referring to. 

Davis never really paid much attention to the historic dates of his life, but I did. And, from time to time, I’d call him and note the anniversary in question. Then we’d reminisce about that time, and I’d usually learn something new about his life or his governments. 

We did it earlier this year in February on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his becoming Ontario PC Party leader. His son Ian kindly arranged for a Zoom call, and we talked about one of the most exciting leadership conventions in Ontario history, in which Davis was the prohibitive favourite but won by just 44 votes on the fourth ballot. 

If he were alive today, I’d be calling him to talk about his first election win as PC party leader, which happened 50 years ago today. Davis had inherited a majority government from his predecessor, John Robarts, but picked up 2 percentage points more of the total vote (to 44.5 per cent), good for nine more seats. It was a pretty solid debut. 

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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Robarts joked that he’d left Davis a well-operating government with only two big issues to resolve: “The Bishop’s Brief” (whether to extend public funding for the Roman Catholic school system to the end of high school) and “Spadina,” the expressway that suburban politicians in what was then called Metropolitan Toronto wanted to build from the northwest of the city right down to Lake Ontario. 

Two minor little issues. Sure. 

Davis was sworn in as Ontario’s 18th premier (actually, the job was the called “Prime Minister of Ontario”) in March 1971, and only three months later, he gave a speech that would significantly define his first term in office. He rose in the legislature to announce that, if we wanted to build cities for cars, the Spadina Expressway was a great place to start. But if we wanted to build cities for people, then the Spadina Expressway was a great place to stop. And with that, Davis killed it — establishing his bona fides as a Conservative who understood the needs of inner cities — and then put millions into public transit. 

Seven months later, voters in Toronto gave Davis’s Tories most of the seats in Ontario’s capital city. Davis was widely praised for having made the right policy decision, for which he was rewarded politically. 

The Bishop’s Brief was a much trickier proposition. Canada’s 1867 constitutional compromise was such that it guaranteed public funding for Protestant schools in Quebec and Catholic schools in Ontario. Legal interpretations obligated governments to fund to the end of Grade 8. But as education minister in the 1960s, Davis had extended funding for grades 9 and 10 as well, putting the separate-school system on a much sounder financial footing. 

The Church kept pushing for public funding right to the end of high school, but Davis demurred. He was always concerned that Ontario, which was much more white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant half a century ago, wouldn’t accept such a move and that the ensuing sectarian strife would be concerning. 

And, so, a few days before calling the 1971 election, Davis announced “It’s always harder to say no than yes,” before confirming there would be no extension of funding for the Catholic system. 

While he never quite admitted this over the years, I suspect Davis felt a little bit guilty winning that 1971 election by saying no to the separate-school system. Much of the Tory core didn’t mind seeing their premier “stick it” to the Catholics. I also suspect that decision gnawed at him over the years so that by 1984 — coincidentally, as Ontario was enjoying more Italian, Portuguese, and Filipino immigration — Davis was then ready to announce funding for Catholic schools to the end of high school.  (While he gets credit for doing it, he never actually did; he retired in October 1984, leaving it to Premier David Peterson’s government, backed by Bob Rae’s NDP, to enact the funding extension in 1986.) 

Agenda segment, August 10, 2021: The life and legacy of Ontario premier Bill Davis

Davis was only 42 years old when he won that majority government half a century ago, making him one of the province’s youngest premiers ever. However, he used to joke that he was “an old 42” because he’d already been in cabinet for nearly a decade as education minister and had five kids. 

The 1971 election would be the first of four consecutive general-elections wins for Davis’s Tories — two majority governments in 1971 and 1981, bookending two minority governments in 1975 and 1977. No premier had won four straight since James P. Whitney during World War I, and, given the nature of politics today, it’s hard to imagine anyone winning four straight again. 

Happy 50th anniversary Premier Davis. Wish you were still around. We’d have had a fun time gossiping about those days today.

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