Happy Birthday Premier Leslie Frost

By Steve Paikin - Published on Sep 20, 2010

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A year from now, Dalton McGuinty will try to win his third consecutive majority government.

Quick now: who was the last Ontario premier to do that?

Don’t feel bad if you can’t come up with his name, because you have to go back more than half a century to find the last premier to pull off that political trifecta.

Leslie Miscampbell Frost would have been 115 years old today --- reason enough to remember the accomplishments of “Old Man Ontario.”

Frost wasn’t our longest-serving premier in the last century. That honour goes to William Davis. But at election time, he was among the most formidable forces we’ve ever seen.

Frost became a Conservative because Liberal Wilfrid Laurier refused to implement conscription during World War I. Frost had been shot in France during that war, needed two years to heal, and walked with a permanent limp thereafter.

I love “what if” stories, and the Frost family has a great one. In 1934, Leslie and Cecil Frost tossed a coin to see which brother would contest the provincial election in Victoria riding. Leslie won the toss and became the candidate. One wonders how different the course of Ontario history might have been, had the coin flip gone the other way.

Ironically, Frost lost that election. But three years later, he ran again and won, and would spend the next quarter century at Queen’s Park.

After Premier George Drew left the provincial scene to become national Conservative Party leader, Frost cruised to a first ballot victory in 1949 and became Ontario’s 16th premier.

He was often accused of running a one-man show. That criticism may have had something to it, given that Frost served as his own treasurer and actually spoke on 40 bills during one session. The fact was, he knew the ins and outs of his ministries better than most of his ministers.

But it was hard to argue with success. In 1951, Frost’s first election as leader, he led the Conservatives to a spectacular majority, winning 79 out of 89 seats.

Interestingly enough, Frost did little to help his old friend George Drew. Relations with Liberal Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent were relatively harmonious, resulting in many historic federal-provincial projects.

Canada and Ontario teamed up to provide pensions to those aged 70; a first health insurance plan; the Trans-Canada Highway; the St. Lawrence Seaway; and the Burlington Skyway Bridge.

Frost restructured the 13 smaller villages in and around Toronto to create the Metropolitan Toronto government, which lasted for 50 years, until Premier Mike Harris replaced it with the Megacity.

He went back to the voters in 1955 to get their endorsement on what he’d done, and the voters richly rewarded him: 84 Conservative seats, compared to just 14 for the opposition.

It was the second biggest majority government in Ontario history (behind G. Howard Ferguson’s 90 seats in 1929).

Even then, without 24/7 cable television, it was hard to stay popular for an entire decade, but Frost somehow managed. His second term saw him help Paul Martin Sr. pass Canada’s first universal health care program, in 1957.
He also appointed the first Jewish Conservative (Allan Grossman, Larry’s father) and the first Ukranian (John Yaremko, who just died last month, a few days shy of age 92) to cabinet.

He did not run a scandal-free government. A Supreme Court of Ontario judge and three of Frost’s ministers were implicated in a stock trading scandal involving the Northern Ontario Natural Gas company. The judge was removed and Frost fired the three ministers.

And yet, when he went to the polls again in 1959, Frost won a smaller, but nevertheless third consecutive majority government with 71 seats.

In 1961, now 65 years old, Frost became increasingly concerned about not dying in office, as Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis had two years earlier at age 69. So, after almost 13 years as premier, he stepped down, replaced in October by John Robarts.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker tried to lure him to national politics with offers of a Senate seat, the finance ministry, and Canada’s ambassadorship in Washington. But Frost turned him down. He had no children, and wanted to spend his remaining years giving his wife Gertrude some of the time she sacrificed during his public life.

He joined some boards of directors, became chancellor of Trent University, and wrote two books.

His wife died in 1970, which was a serious blow to him. Less than a year and a half later, on May 4, 1973, Frost himself passed away from cancer at his home in Lindsay. There was no eulogy, and he was buried on the edge of town by the Scugog River.

Frost was one of the most important premiers Ontario ever had, and to be sure, one of the most successful. The building on Queen’s Park Crescent that houses the ministry of finance bears his name, as does a library at York University’s Glendon College.

Inexplicably, there is no statue of him on the grounds of the Ontario Legislature, where he spent so much of his life.

(PS: The Toronto Star was kind enough to publish this piece today as well. Thanks to editor Ian Urquhart for indulging in my love of Canadian political history. The piece is also here.)

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