Most politicians, on most days, aspire to build a legacy like Bill Davis’s

OPINION: As both education minister and premier, Davis transformed Ontario — in part because he didn’t feel obliged to stick to the status quo
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 10, 2021
Bill Davis, then premier of Ontario, and Quebec Liberal leader Robert Bourassa at Queen's Park on December 6, 1984. (Bill Becker/CP)



It’s not entirely productive or healthy to think about politics in terms of binaries — black and white, up and down, good and evil — but, well, we all do it at least sometimes, and this is one of those times I’m going to. Bill Davis, who died this past weekend at the age of 92, has already been the subject of numerous statements here at TVO, from our CEO Jeffrey Orridge and my colleague Steve Paikin and on our newsletter and podcast. But, given the depth and breadth of the late premier’s legacy, there’s at least a little bit of material left to mine for some nuggets of analysis, and maybe even wisdom.

At this point, even people who weren’t familiar with Davis’s name (they exist!) have probably learned the abbreviated list of his accomplishments as education minister and premier: the expansions of schools and universities and the creation of the college system in Ontario; the transformation of GO Transit from the pilot experiment he’d inherited into a permanent, robust transit system that today serves the beating heart of the province’s economy; the launching of TVO in the face of serious federal hostility. These are just the tip of a massive iceberg: he also made important changes to things like school boards, municipalities, and tax policies, and dedicated massive infrastructure spending to things like highways and sewers. For better and worse, these still shape the way the province grows to this day.

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It's obvious to say that, by the time he retired in 1985, Davis had massively transformed the province. Some of that was the result of longevity, of course, but that doesn’t explain all of it: rather, what’s so impressive is how little Davis felt bound to stick to the status quo he’d inherited. When he stopped the Spadina Expressway at Eglinton Avenue, here in Toronto, that marked a dramatic reversal in a project that was already under construction and had already been approved by both the Metro Toronto council and the Ontario Municipal Board. But Davis agreed with the arguments for stopping it, so precedents didn’t matter: the Spadina Expressway was halted.

There are politicians who carefully colour within the lines of what they believe is politically possible or prudent, and then there are politicians who redraw the lines.

Both are necessary and healthy in a functioning democracy, and one isn’t necessarily better than the other — and leaders can still make important moves within the systems they inherit. The shutdown of coal-fired power plants in Ontario is simultaneously one of the most critical pieces of climate policy any government in Canada has accomplished and also something Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne managed to do while leaving intact much of the power system inherited from the Harris-Eves governments (until late in the Liberal tenure, when Wynne privatized Hydro One after the coal shutdown was complete).

It's also possible for radical change to go badly wrong if it’s not tempered by caution and wisdom. We saw some of that at the beginning of Doug Ford’s tenure, when the Tories seemed to enjoy breaking things for the sake of breaking things; there were the silly and unnecessary attacks on Toronto’s local elections, the abrupt changes to services for children with autism, the seemingly punitive changes to policies regarding electric cars and renewable energy. After nearly a generation out of power, the Tories had a long list of things they wanted to do and felt no need to bind themselves to Liberal precedent. But they were so clumsy and inept that they dug Ford’s government into a deep, deep hole as far as approval polls went — and, if you believe some observers, helped hand Justin Trudeau a minority Parliament in 2019, after the Liberals picked up several seats in Ontario.

Of course, even Davis’s legacy is not spotless. His willingness to continually experiment outside the bounds of what was in front of him sometimes led the government to run fast down blind alleys. When it came to transit, for example, he could simply have bought off-the-shelf technology but instead pursued GO-ALRT technology and its promise of driverless electric trains. (The Liberals shelved it when they came to power in 1985). Maybe the idea was ahead of its time, or maybe it was just bad, but nearly 40 years later, diesel-powered trains still chug daily through the Greater Golden Horseshoe, much as they did when Davis was premier.

Still, I don’t think it’s risky to say that most politicians, on most days, aspire to a legacy like Davis’s; it’s undeniably more compelling to imagine leaving a province comprehensively changed by your time in office. One lesson from Davis’s life and career might be, then, that, as attractive as it is to imagine transforming a province for the better, it’s easy for things to go off the rails (pardon the transit-policy pun) unless the desire for revisionism is harnessed to caution — and to wisdom.

That is, of course, the hard part.

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