Robarts is far more than just the name of a library

Sixty years ago today, John P. Robarts became Ontario’s 17th prime minister — and started transforming the province
By Steve Paikin - Published on Nov 08, 2021
Premier John Robarts speaking at Leslie Frost Day in Lindsay on August 23, 1963. (John Boyd/ Globe and Mail)

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Many things in 2021 Ontario have roots in the temperament and wisdom of a man who was sworn in as Ontario’s 17th prime minister 60 years ago today. 

And, no, that’s not a misprint. When John P. Robarts, the MPP for London, took the oath of office six decades ago, the job was officially called “prime minister of Ontario.” Robarts’s successor, Bill Davis, changed the title to “premier,” figuring the country should have only one prime minister. 

Robarts won the right to become Ontario’s chief executive after winning a thrilling six-ballot (that, too, is not a misprint) leadership convention at Varsity Arena. He was the education minister in Leslie Frost’s government, and he defeated a cabinet colleague with almost the same last name — Kelso Roberts. 

When you use electricity in this province, pause for a second and think of Robarts. More than half of Ontario’s electricity generation comes from nuclear power, and it was the Robarts government that built the province’s first nuclear-generating stations in Pickering. 

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If you took the GO train today, think of Robarts. His government saw increasing urbanization happening around Ontario’s capital city and decided to invest heavily in a commuter-rail system. 

CFPL-TV footage of the 1961 Ontario Progressive Conservative party leadership convention. (YouTube/Archives of Ontario)

If you’re a graduate of one of Ontario’s colleges of applied arts and technology or if you went to York, Brock, Trent, or Laurentian universities, think of Robarts. All those institutions came into being on his watch. 

Same for the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and TVO. Robarts’s education minister, Bill Davis, was responsible for making all that happen. And it did. 

Ever been to the Ontario Science Centre in Don Mills? If you have, think of Robarts, who wanted science to be fun and not dreary. That was a Centennial-year project that darned near every Ontario school kid has visited at some point in their lives. 

Robarts also deserves a thought when you go to Toronto’s waterfront. He believed that kids whose parents didn’t have cottages or couldn’t afford to send them to summer camp deserved a place to play and have fun. And, so, we got Ontario Place, which was an immensely popular hangout for decades, before more recently falling into disrepair. (There are plans afoot by the current government to bring it back to life.) 

Robarts was driving from Niagara-on-the-Lake back to Queen’s Park one day when he looked out his window and saw the magnificent Niagara Escarpment. He thought the escarpment was one of Ontario’s crown jewels and resolved to protect it. He got the wheels rolling on something that eventually became the Niagara Escarpment Commission, which has protected that UNESCO-recognized biosphere for almost half a century. 

Robarts, a unilingual anglophone from London, had served in the Navy during the Second World War. His bunkmate was a unilingual francophone. Robarts didn’t speak a word of French but had always been interested in Quebec’s relationship with the rest of Canada. And, so, in 1967, he used the convening power that perhaps only the prime ministers of Canada and Ontario have to invite all the premiers to the top of the newly built Toronto Dominion Centre to discuss the future of the country. It was called the Confederation of Tomorrow conference, and it was the first significant attempt to better understand Quebec’s aspirations. When you visit the TD Centre, stop in the main foyer and check out the plaque that commemorates the event. 

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In 1973, Premier Bill Davis urged the University of Toronto to name its new library after John P. Robarts. (benedek/iStock)

The 1960s were a great time to be leading Ontario. The economy was firing on all cylinders, the budgets were always in balance, and there was a steady hand on the tiller in Robarts. It’s how he earned his nickname, “Chairman of the Board,” and he remained that until 1971, when Davis took over. (And, yes, Davis urged the University of Toronto in 1973 to name its huge new library after Robarts. I have always suspected that only a tiny percentage of the millions of students who have used that library over the years have any idea who it’s named after. Now you know.) 

However great his premiership was, Robarts’s private life was punctuated by tragedy. His son, Timothy, was lost to drug addiction and eventually suicide in 1977, when he was 21. His first wife, Norah, drank herself to death after the couple split up. She choked on a piece of meat while alone at her London home and asphyxiated. 

And Robarts himself had a stroke in 1981 that left him quite debilitated and unable to enjoy life with his second wife, Katherine, who was 28 years his junior. Robarts told his daughter, Robin — who herself died in her 50s from cancer — that he would give himself a year to recover, and if he didn’t … well, she understood what he meant. 

On October 18, 1982, Robarts entered the shower stall of his Rosedale home and took with him the shotgun (he was an avid hunter) the Ontario Progressive Conservative party had given him as a token of thanks for his steady leadership. He took his own life in that shower stall. 

Next month, for the 50th consecutive year, some of Robarts’s old colleagues will gather at a club in downtown Toronto to raise a glass and have an annual lunch in his memory. Former Ontario treasurer Darcy McKeough, now 88, is the keeper of the flame and ensures his former mentor and premier isn’t forgotten. 

Ontario didn’t just happen. It became what it is today thanks to the efforts of millions of people over the years and the wise leadership of a small handful of people. Robarts was one of those people, and it all started 60 years ago today. 

That’s worth remembering on this Monday, November 8, 2021. 

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