Say the word “Brampton” and if you're of a certain vintage your mind immediately thinks of the man who was Ontario's 18th premier. It was a running gag for William Davis, premier from 1971-85, to mention his hometown at least three times in every speech he gave.
When the former premier (and many other Bramptonians) felt the previous mayor, Susan Fennell, had lost the trust of the Flower City's citizens, Davis did his level best to persuade the then-provincial Liberal cabinet minister Linda Jeffrey to leave Queen's Park and run for mayor.
She did, and she won, with her campaign sign on Davis' front lawn.
Immediately, the new mayor and the former premier's relationship soared. Mayor Jeffrey appointed Davis to chair a blue ribbon task force whose goal was to bring a university to their city. (Brampton's population is approaching 600,000, making it the largest city in Canada without a university). Jeffrey regularly met with Davis, often at his home. The two became fast friends and loyal allies.
But that alliance appears to have badly gone off the rails, ironically over something that made Bill Davis a political star almost 45 years ago: public transit.
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Again, people with long memories will recall Davis was once chosen North America's Transit Man of the Year back in the 1970s, for killing the Spadina Expressway, building mass transit, and saving thousands of jobs at the Urban Transportation Development Corporation (UTDC), which designed the vehicles for the current Scarborough RT in Toronto's transit system.
But Davis has taken a very public — and for some a curious — position on Peel Region's new Light Rail Transit line, of which the provincial government has promised to fund 100 percent of the $1.6 billion construction costs. Most of the line would run up Hurontario Street in Mississauga, but the mayor hopes some of it would extend further north along Main Street in Brampton.
Davis lives on Main Street and would see the road in front of his home dug up under the current LRT plan. But he insists his opposition isn’t rooted in NIMBYism. He just doesn't think the Main Street route is ideal. He believes a different route along Queen Street is preferable and would better kick-start development of the city’s downtown.
The brouhaha has now awkwardly and embarrassingly gone public. Davis has now publicly contradicted the mayor, who insists the LRT's current planned route is an essential ingredient to attracting a future university for Brampton.
“By portending that a particular transit option and route is a precondition to our ability to be successful is not only unfounded but unhelpful as it suggests that this community is not committed to greater transit accessibility which is patently untrue,” Davis has said.
Now, Mayor Jeffrey has issued her own letter to the university blue ribbon panellists and the tone suggests she felt blindsided by Davis' salvo.
Among other things, Jeffrey's letter says, “I am truly disappointed that the Chair (Davis) chose to insert himself...into a political debate.” She goes on to accuse Davis of overstepping his mandate and raising questions about the “ethics and relevance of the Panel in participating in issues outside its intended mandate,” namely, the route of the LRT.
Jeffrey says the panel's job is to get a university for Brampton, not weigh in on transit policy. “The Chair has failed to grasp the gravity of the situation,” Jeffrey writes. “I am truly disappointed that the Chair has made these comments.”
The timing of all of this is crucial because Tuesday, Brampton council is supposed to make its decision on the LRT. The province and Mayor Jeffrey want the LRT to continue from Mississauga across Steeles Avenue, go up Main Street in Brampton all the way to the Brampton GO Station. Others members of Brampton Council argue other alternatives should be studied. They suggest diverting the LRT from Main Street and running it instead along Queen Street, zoned for greater density, could be a better option.
Others still fear Brampton won't be able to afford the annual operating costs of the line and may want to kill the entire project altogether.
The province has said if its Main Street option isn't endorsed by council, it'll have the line stop at Steeles Avenue, which is the boundary between Mississauga and Brampton — in other words, freezing Brampton out of any new transit at all.
Clearly, honorable people are disagreeing here, but consequences are far-reaching.
If Brampton can't come to an agreement on this, it'll have exposed some serious fault lines on council, it may affect the city's chances to get a new university, and it could cause the city to lose its chance for a new, “free” transit line that could transform the city from a sleepy ex-urban town to a more thriving, intensified, urban place.
Those issues may be fixable. The saddest part of all this is that the relationship between the old premier and the new mayor may not be.
Steve Paikin is currently writing a biography of Bill Davis.