Remembering William G. Davis, 1929-2021

He won four straight elections. He was the second-longest-serving premier Ontario’s ever had. But more than that, he was a decent man and a great Canadian
By Steve Paikin - Published on Aug 08, 2021
William G. Davis (centre) was Premier of Ontario from 1971 to 1985. (John McNeill/The Globe and Mail)

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Bill Davis is dead.

Part of me can’t believe I actually just typed that. After all, when he turned 91, on July 30, 2020, he became the longest-living former Ontario premier ever — and, as ridiculous as it sounds, I figured he’d keep celebrating more and more birthdays, year after year.

But this morning, I received a call from his eldest son, Neil, who confirmed his death.

“It is with immense sadness and deep gratitude for his remarkable life as a husband, father, brother, grandfather of twelve and great grandfather of three that we announce the passing in his beloved hometown of Brampton the morning of August 8, 2021 of the Hon. William G. Davis, the 18th premier of Ontario,” the family’s official statement reads.

Davis had suffered through lousy health for two decades, enduring a heart-bypass operation followed by multiple treatments for skin cancer. Yet I’ve lost count of the number of emails I’ve sent him over the years in which I’ve told him about other political colleagues who’ve predeceased him.

I just thought he’d live forever.

Bill Davis
Davis previews one of the 1978 Canadian National Exhibition's upcoming attractions. (John McNeill/The Globe and Mail)

I’ve known the past nine premiers of Ontario, from Davis to Doug. Political observers could debate for hours over who has the best record. Davis supporters would certainly not lack for evidence to make their case. As education minister in the 1960s, he was responsible for creating the college system, establishing the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, green-lighting new universities, building innumerable schools all over the province, giving two additional years (grades 9 and 10) of taxpayer support to the Catholic school system, and saving the French-language schools that would have folded for lack of funding. And, of course, there’s my personal favourite: he created TVO. As he often joked, “Without me, Mr. Paikin, you’d have been unemployed the past 25 years.” A list of Davis's accomplishments as Progressive Conservative Party leader and Ontario’s 18th premier would stretch from here to Kenora. I’d put those accomplishments into two buckets: political and policy.

In the political realm, Davis was undefeated. That’s right: he never lost. Anything. He was elected in Brampton seven straight times, starting in 1959. In 1971, he ran for the leadership of his party and won on the fourth ballot by just 44 votes. He then won four straight elections: majority governments in 1971 and 1981 bookended two minority wins, in 1975 and 1977. No one in Ontario has had four straight wins since. No one had done it before him, either — not since the First World War.

And because he was a moderate, pragmatic, centrist Progressive Conservative, he was able to cobble together a successful governing coalition in the legislature during six straight years of minority parliament (from 1975 to 1981). Davis was consistently appalled by today’s scorched-earth style of politics, in which “compromise” is a dirty word. Yes, he compromised. Yes, it often irritated his small-c conservative base in rural Ontario, as well as more progressive forces, who thought he wasn’t doing nearly enough fast enough. But his governing style kept the Tories in power for nearly 14 years of their 42-year-long dynasty (which lasted from 1943 to 1985). It also meant that his legacy would not be overturned as soon as he left office. Too much of the public had bought into it.

After Thanksgiving weekend in 1984, he walked into Queen’s Park with his wife, Kathleen, and their eldest son, Neil, and everyone knew something was up. What they didn’t know was whether Davis intended to retire or to exploit his stratospheric polling numbers by calling an election. His cabinet and caucus begged him to stay, but he’d simply had enough. He almost certainly would have won a fifth straight mandate. But don’t take it from me. Take it from then-leader of the NDP, Bob Rae, who told me years later, “Had he run, he’d have wiped the floor with both [David] Peterson and me.”

Bill Davis
Davis's official Queen's Park portrait. (Steve Paikin)

When Davis retired after 25 years as an MPP, Neil joked that, because his father had been either education minister or premier since 1962 and thus had had a car and driver constantly on call, the family would have to send him back for driving lessons. At the time of his death, Davis had been out of electoral politics for 36 years — yet he remained the second-longest-serving premier in Ontario history, behind only Oliver Mowat, who served for 24 years.

When it comes to policy achievements, think about all the decisions Davis’s governments took that have stood the test of time: Almost immediately after becoming premier, in 1971, he stopped construction of the Spadina Expressway, delighting Toronto’s urban progressives and angering the GTA’s more conservative commuters. That expressway still hasn’t been built.

Innumerable private interests opposed his decision to implement rent review to protect tenants from being gouged by their landlords. Forty-six years later, Davis’s rent-review system has survived essentially intact.

He didn’t dare risk fanning the flames of language intolerance by making Ontario officially bilingual, which angered then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau. But, where numbers warranted it, he did provide French-language public services and bilingualism in the courts. Four decades later, those policies are still in place.

In 1981, Davis’s government spent a fortune buying up shares in an energy company called Suncor. This outraged the Tory party base, which wondered why the province was getting into the oil business. When the share price plummeted during the recession of the early 1980s, the purchase looked as if it had been a dumb idea. Sadly, a future government would sell the shares, depriving Ontarians of the massive windfall they might’ve reaped when the share price later went through the roof. We sure could have used that revenue over the past 40 years.

When Toronto wanted a domed stadium, Davis ponied up and, through clever political manipulation, managed to have it located downtown. He did not want a capital city that rolled up its sidewalks every day at 5 p.m. That decision, perhaps more than any other, ensured people would not abandon downtown for the suburbs: thousands stayed in the city to watch their favourite sports teams or go to concerts. While the SkyDome has a different name today, it’s been there for more than three decades — and, given the money Rogers has put into it, it’s a safe bet that baseball will be played there for many years to come.

Steve Paikin, Bill Davis
Davis and the author in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2017. (Steve Paikin)

Davis appointed Margaret Birch—  the first woman ever to serve in an Ontario cabinet — in 1972. When I asked Birch whether she’d ever experienced any sexism as the only woman in a cabinet full of men, she said, “Actually, never. Because Bill Davis wouldn’t have tolerated it.” He also created the Ministry of the Environment in 1971, having realized that Ontario’s increasing industrialization was coming at a cost to the province’s air, land, and water.

But his crowning achievement was as one of the fathers of re-Confederation. In 1981, Davis played what was perhaps the most essential part in the repatriation of the Constitution and the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As befitting the monumental role Ontario premiers are expected to play in national affairs, Davis managed to bring a stubborn prime minister (the current PM’s father) and a recalcitrant “Gang of Eight” premiers to a compromise that everyone (except Réné Lévesque, the separatist premier of Quebec) could live with. And I don’t hear anyone saying it’s time to get rid of the Charter or to let the United Kingdom once again have final say over Canadian legislation.

No, Davis wasn’t a perfect politician. He enjoyed the spoils of patronage, putting Tories in as many agency, board, and commission jobs as possible, something that would’ve garnered significant negative publicity these days. And most of the time, he wasn’t the bravest politician around. People joked that his government’s slogan ought to be: “Never put off till tomorrow what you can avoid doing altogether.” He often joked, “You don’t get into trouble for the speeches you don’t give.”

He loved the cut and thrust of politics, enjoyed scoring points at the opposition’s expense, and could be a ferocious campaigner. But it was never personal. Once, when Donald MacDonald rose in the legislature to excoriate the premier and his party for its stupidity in having sent him, the leader of the NDP, for goodness’ sake, a fundraising letter, Davis — who’d had no warning that this was coming — struck back:

“Mr. Speaker, it’s recently come to my attention that the PC Party has purchased the subscription list of Playboy magazine, which is how we got the honourable member’s address. I will tell our party officials to strike his name from our fundraising lists, with no harm done. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.”

Everyone howled. Including MacDonald. When was the last time question period was ever that much fun?

Bill Davis
Davis receives a standing ovation as he takes his seat as premier for the last time, on December 15, 1984. (John McNeill/The Globe and Mail)

I’ve written hundreds — maybe thousands — of columns for TVO.org over the years and have tried to ensure that my own views don’t dominate these ramblings. But I can’t finish this one without making a few personal observations.

Davis became premier when I was 10 years old. He stayed in the job till I was 24. In other words, my most formative years growing up in Ontario were his most formative years in politics. I think I’m the only current member of the Queen’s Park press gallery who reported on his final term, in the early 1980s.

His professional career and personal life have always fascinated me. One of his successors, David Peterson, quite brilliantly summed up the secret to Davis’s success: “He’s an extraordinary guy, cloaked in ordinariness.” It’s true. Davis was as comfortable with captains of industry as he was with average folks at a strawberry social.

Somehow, he went on to enjoy great success in politics despite having lost his first wife to cancer when she was only 31, leaving him a widower with four very young children. His second wife (of nearly 60 years), Kathleen, is the superhero of Davis’s story. She took on the responsibility of being the primary caregiver to his four kids. The couple then had a fifth child, and Kathleen’s love and attention enabled Davis to have the political career he was destined to have.

After Davis left politics, I spent nearly three decades trying to convince him to co-operate with me on a biography. It might have been modesty that made him reluctant at first. But later on, he suspected that no one cared about his legacy anymore, so why bother? I encouraged, cajoled, and eventually quasi-threatened him to co-operate. So did many of his friends. Davis was 85 when my wife called him and said, “Mr. Davis, come on. My husband isn’t getting any younger.”

He finally said yes, and, over the course of the ensuing year, we spent quite a lot of time together — at his home and office in Brampton, at his condominium in Florida, at the Albany Club in downtown Toronto (where conservatives hang out), and at his cottage on Georgian Bay. It was an honour to spend that much time with him — but, even more than that, it was fun.

Bill Davis
Davis leafs through his biography, "Bill Davis: Nation Builder, and Not So Bland After All," for the first time. (Steve Paikin)

Oh, how the man could gossip! He insisted on gabbing about the latest political goings-on for half an hour before he got down to the business of answering my questions for the book. It was a very special time: we talked about things he’d rarely (or never) discussed with other people, such as the death of his first wife or for whom he voted at the January 1985 leadership convention to replace him.

In 2016, when the book was done, I brought the first copies, hot off the presses, to his home in Brampton so I could give the first editions to Kathleen and him. She looked at the cover and said, “Oh, Billy, look how handsome you are!” Conversely, he wasn’t thrilled with the cover shot (in which, admittedly, he does look like a bit of a mobster, chomping on a big stogie after an election victory). He leafed through the book briefly, although he never read it (Davis wasn’t much of a reader, and a 600-page book — even one about him — was never going to be part of his plans).

We had a book launch at which 300 friends, family members, and former adversaries showed up. He gave a phenomenal speech that had people laughing and crying. And when it was over, the applause went on and on and on. It occurred to me that this was one of the reasons I’d so wanted to write the book: I wanted him to have a moment when he could be the centre of attention again and experience the love of the people who knew him best.

And it happened. It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life. And I think it was a pretty good one for him, too.

Every few months, Davis would call me at work, ostensibly to complain about something he’d seen on The Agenda, but really just to shoot the breeze. He’d never start the call with “Bill Davis calling” or anything like that; he’d just start talking, and I knew in half a second who was on the other end of the line. The calls would almost always begin: “Now, listen here …” — and off he’d go, criticizing me for some guest we’d had on or some question I’d failed to ask. It was fabulous.

Several years ago, when we renamed the TVO studio where we tape The Agenda after him, we had a reception that he, then-premier Dalton McGuinty, and then-education minister Kathleen Wynne all attended. McGuinty sheepishly admitted that when his mother told stories referring to “the premier,” she wasn’t talking about her son. She was talking about Bill Davis.

Bill Davis
Davis (centre, seated), his family, and the author at Davis's cottage on Georgian Bay. (Steve Paikin)

I knew him — pretty well, I think — for 40 years. And like his former senior advisers Toronto mayor John Tory and Queen’s University professor Hugh Segal, I never once called him “Bill.” Ever (even though the twentysomething associates at Tory’s law firm, where Davis used to work, always did). He was always just Premier.

This year, I spoke to him on January 29. His son Ian was kind enough to set up a Zoom call for the three of us. He was in terrific form. “I’m feeling pretty good,” he responded when I asked him how he was doing.

As we started chatting, he spotted a picture of the Ontario flag behind me on my wall. “I think that’s wonderful,” he said. “Maybe get one that’s a bit bigger.” Davis was part of the John Robarts government that picked that flag, back in 1965.

His sense of humour was totally intact. As our chat was less than two weeks removed from the departure of Donald Trump from the White House, I asked him whether he’d ever met the 45th president.

“Yes, I have,” he said.

“In Florida?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t think he’s ever come to Brampton,” Davis replied, and we all burst out laughing. He also liked what he was seeing early in Joe Biden’s administration. “We can be encouraged by what he’s up to,” he said.

His daughter Nancy dropped into the call to tell me that she was reading the biography I had written of her father to him. Davis frequently teased me about the fact that he’d never read the book. “I’ve read it,” Nancy assured me, “but he still hasn’t.” I wonder how many chapters they got through.

Davis did get back up to his Georgian Bay cottage for a while this summer. “He even drove the boat,” Neil told me Sunday morning. “And he did it without a mistake. He docked it perfectly at Honey Harbour. It was a wonderful goodbye to Georgian Bay.”

The last time Davis and I spoke was on his birthday, July 30. A week earlier, he’d been rushed from his cottage to the hospital in Brampton, and his family had feared that that might be it. But with some time at home, he rallied, and when we spoke, he sounded energetic — cracking jokes and mentioning that he hoped to get back up to Georgian Bay, his favourite place in the world. But fate had other ideas.

“The last day or so, it was obvious that it was time,” Neil told me.

The Premier is now gone. It’s a sad day for Ontario and for Canada. It’s a sadder day for those of us who were lucky enough to know and love him.

Bill Davis
William Grenville Davis, 1929-2021. (Rod MacIvor/CP)


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