Ontario’s most beloved (and now longest-living) former premier turns 91 

It’s been 35 years since Bill Davis was last in office. But his record still looks pretty darned good 
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jul 30, 2020
Steve Paikin (left) and Bill Davis at the 2016 launch of the author’s biography of the former premier. (Steve Paikin)

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For some reason, long life and being premier of Ontario don’t seem to go together. 

Mitchell Hepburn died in 1953 at age 56. His successor, Gordon Conant, made it to 67. His successor, Harry Nixon, was 70 when he went to the great legislature in the sky. Next came George Drew, who died at 78. His successor, Leslie Frost, also got to 78. John Robarts came next, and his health was so awful after a stroke, he was lost to suicide at 65. Frank Miller, who died 20 years ago this month, and whose son Norm now represents the same riding at Queen’s Park, got only to 73. 

William Grenville Davis is widely regarded today as an exceptional premier, so why shouldn’t he be an exception to this rule?  

Bill Davis turns 91 years old today. Of Ontario’s 26 premiers, only one other even ever got to celebrate his 90th. 

Davis must be aware of the connection between his old job and not particularly long life, because, when we spoke a few weeks ago, one of the first things he said to me, apropos of nothing, was: “You do know I’m going to be 91 soon.” 

I assured him that, as someone who’d not that long ago written a 600-page biography on him, I was completely aware of when his birthday was and how old he’d be. 

Davis hasn’t been premier of Ontario for 35 years now. He got the job in 1971 at the tender age of 41, having been perhaps this province’s best-ever education minister for almost nine years before that. (How do I know he might have been the best-ever education minister? Simple. He told me. Yes, he’s a very modest guy, but not always.) 

People who follow provincial affairs still talk about Davis (Premier Doug Ford mentioned him a week ago while answering a reporter’s question about long-term care), in part because of what he did in office and in part because of how he left office. Every ex-premier since Davis has been voted out of office (David Peterson, Bob Rae, Ernie Eves, Kathleen Wynne), lost power on a confidence vote (Frank Miller), or quit politics before the voters could throw them out (Mike Harris, Dalton McGuinty). 

Davis is the last premier who actually retired from public life at the height of his popularity, having won four straight elections, and with a possible fifth consecutive victory within his grasp, had he wanted it. 

As it happened, he didn’t. Instead of exploiting his popularity to continue the then 42-year-long Tory dynasty, he stepped aside, knowing he couldn’t truthfully tell people that he intended to serve another full term, rather than just get the Progressive Conservatives back in and then leave. 

Davis would have faced Liberal leader Peterson and NDP leader Rae in the ensuing 1985 election. While Peterson believes defeating Davis would have been hard but not impossible, Rae, just appointed Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, disagrees. 

“He’d have wiped the floor with both Peterson and me,” he told me years ago for my Davis bio. (Interestingly enough, the closest, most personal relationship Davis has with any former premier is with Rae, who unhesitatingly admits: “I love the man.”) 

When he left public life, Davis was only 54. Doug Ford was a few months shy of that age when he began his premiership. Frank Miller was 57. Kathleen Wynne was a few months shy of 60. So it wasn’t being too long in the tooth that prompted Davis’s departure. He’d been an MPP since age 29 and in politics for a quarter of a century. He’d simply had enough. Furthermore, he was feeling the pressure to make some money and give his family a sense of financial security they’d never known. Even today, Davis jokes about the fact that he still serves on two boards (Magellan Aerospace and the insurance company FCT) because he’s got to support five children, 12 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. (He doesn’t really have to support them, but it’s a line that always gets a laugh.) 

While Davis’s legacy seems to burn more brightly as the years go on, it’s also worth remembering that he also had plenty of rough moments in politics. His second mandate, in 1975, was only a minority government, because his first term created lofty expectations that weren’t met. Two years later, in 1977, he orchestrated his own defeat in the legislature, so confident was he that he’d get his majority back. But the voters again said no, not yet. We like you, but on a bit of a leash. 

Over the ensuing four years, from 1977 to 1981, Davis presided over what might have been the golden era of Ontario politics. Because it was a minority parliament and because he was a moderate, pragmatic Progressive Conservative (as opposed to a deeply ideological right-winger), Davis had no trouble working with the other parties to find solutions to Ontario’s problems. It worked so well, the voters rewarded him four years later and gave him back his majority government. No one had won four straight elections in Ontario since 1914. 

Davis’s contrasts are part of what made him so interesting to watch. He could take bold decisions. But he was also teased for turning procrastination into an art form (“Why put off till tomorrow what you can avoid doing altogether?”). He won the 1971 election, in part, by refusing to extend full public funding to the Roman Catholic school system, which was then publicly funded only to Grade 10. Then, four months before retiring in 1984, he rose in the legislature, refuted all the arguments he’d made 13 years earlier, and offered full funding to Catholics to the end of high school. (Given his retirement, it was actually left to the Peterson government, backed by Rae, to implement the policy.) 

He liked and respected teachers and gave them the right to strike. But he was also hung in effigy by the teachers’ unions, which mounted demonstrations every bit as big as the ones with which Mike Harris had to contend. The protestors poetically screamed, “Save us from Davis.” 

He had some of the best fights ever with the current prime minister’s father. You can’t imagine two politicians with less in common: Pierre Trudeau, the dazzling, urbane, intellectual, Jesuit-trained philosopher king; Davis, the pride of exurban Brampton, sports fan, not a particularly dynamic speaker (that’s being generous), with deep Anglo-Saxon roots in rural Ontario. And, yet, when it came time to repatriate Canada’s Constitution, with an accompanying Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Davis was the first premier to sign on to Trudeau’s historic project. It wouldn’t have happened without him. 

Davis was the education minister who gave us the college system, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and, God bless him, TVO!  (He often jokes that I’d have been unemployed for the last quarter century if not for him.) 

He made the decision to build the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) and locate it downtown. He saw what was happening to American downtowns, which rolled up their sidewalks at 5 p.m. and were ghost towns after that. That would not happen to Ontario’s capital city, thanks to the decision to put a domed stadium downtown, which kickstarted billions in other developments. 

He thought about running for national PC party leader in 1983. There was no more popular Tory in the country at the time. But he didn’t speak French and worried that his entry into the field would exacerbate regional tensions with the West (with Bill Davis, it was always “country first”). Instead, he campaigned like hell for Brian Mulroney, who won 67 out of 95 Ontario seats in the 1984 federal election, en route to the biggest majority government ever. Mulroney told me for my Davis bio that getting the premier’s “Big Blue Machine” on board was crucial to his electoral success. 

Today, you wouldn’t call Bill Davis a rugged 91-year-old. He’s had his share of health problems, as almost everyone who gets to that age surely does. We spoke briefly yesterday, and he sounded good — perhaps not quite as robust as he has in the past, but good. He still loves being active on the political scene, although, strangely enough, he’s never met Ford. 

He will spend this weekend enjoying a family birthday celebration at the one place on Earth he may adore as much as his beloved Brampton — his cottage near Honey Harbour in Georgian Bay. His eldest child, Neil, assures me that everyone will practice physical distancing at the outdoor picnic celebration. 

But in a life filled with significant accomplishments, Davis has achieved something new today. He is now the longest-lived former premier of Ontario ever, having passed 90-year-old Ernest Drury, the one-term premier from the United Farmers of Ontario in 1919, who died in 1968. 

Happy birthday, Premier Davis. Once again, as was so often the case back in the day, you’re number one. 

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