The ordinary extraordinariness of Bill Davis

Ontarians picked him as their 18th premier when he was just 41 years old. Today, he turns 90 — and he’s still going strong
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jul 30, 2019
Former Ontario premier Bill Davis reading a book
Bill Davis was the second-longest-serving premier in Ontario history. (Steve Paikin)

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At the risk of sounding a bit too macabre, here are some words I thought I might never type: former Ontario premier Bill Davis is 90 years old today.

I remember when, at the tender age of 41, Davis became the province’s 18th premier. He was one of the youngest first-time first ministers we’d ever had. Fourteen years later, he ended up being the second-longest-serving premier in Ontario history, and his political record was matched by few — if any — of the other 25 people who’d also had the job.

For some strange reason, I have been fascinated with the life and times of William Grenville Davis for decades. No question, part of it stems from the fact that his formative years in politics coincided with my formative years growing up in Ontario. And as a cub reporter in the early 1980s, I covered his fourth and final term at Queen’s Park, which turned out to be a hugely interesting and consequential time for our province and country.  

In November 1981, Davis’s intervention at just the right moment saved what otherwise would have been yet another failed attempt to repatriate Canada’s Constitution with an accompanying Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It was also Davis who made the decision to build and locate a new domed stadium, with the world’s first-ever mechanically retractable roof, right beside the CN Tower, in downtown Toronto. The SkyDome (as it was then known) was a breakthrough in urban design and planning. Most American cities were building their new stadiums in the suburbs, leaving their downtowns to roll up the sidewalks every day at 5 p.m. Not Toronto. Our capital city’s downtown remains one of the most vibrant in North America, partly because of the dome decision.

Davis’s final term was also punctuated by one of the most controversial decisions he ever made: to extend public funding for the Catholic school system to the end of high school. The Constitution promised taxpayer support to the end of Grade 8. As education minister, in the 1960s, Davis extended public funding to Grade 10. There it remained for two decades. If Catholic students wanted to attend grades 11, 12, and 13 in the separate school system, they had to pay tuition to do so. Davis’s 1984 decision to extend taxpayer support to the end of high school began the process that ended this practice.

To this day, 35 years after the fact, many Ontarians still believe he made the wrong call.

Davis was born in Toronto on July 30, 1929, and grew up in a Brampton that would be unrecognizable today. It was a far cry from the dynamic, multicultural city of 600,000 people we’re familiar with. Five thousand souls lived there then; 95 per cent of them were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

And yet, by all accounts, Davis grew into an adult who was free of many of the prejudices that were so prevalent in the province then. In 1972, he appointed Ontario’s first-ever female cabinet minister, Margaret Birch, who told me years later that she’d never faced sexism while in cabinet. Why not?

“Bill Davis wouldn’t have stood for it,” she said.

Unlike too much of the Tory core at the time, Davis also had no time for antisemitism, even though he surely would have had almost no exposure to Jews growing up in Brampton. Men such as Eddie Goodman and Hugh Segal became senior advisers. And both Allan and Larry Grossman (father and son) played senior roles in Davis’ cabinets.

His near decade as education minister under premier John Robarts featured some of the most ambitious initiatives Ontario history. Under his leadership, the province saw the creation of the college system, the establishment of new universities (including York, Laurentian, Brock, and Trent) and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, a commitment to save French school boards, and the creation of Ontario’s educational broadcaster, TVO. (Davis occasionally teases me about this: “If not for me, you’d have been unemployed for the past quarter-century.”)

His approach to politics is, sadly, that of a bygone era. He treated his adversaries as worthy opponents, not enemies to be destroyed. He oversaw minority governments for six years, which meant that he had to be pragmatic and not ideological — working to gain the NDP’s support on some bills and the Liberals’ support on others.  When then-prime minister Brian Mulroney asked for Davis’s advice on whom to appoint as Canada’s new United Nations ambassador, Davis recommended Stephen Lewis, the former leader of the opposition. It is nearly impossible to imagine any of today’s first ministers offering such advice. And, of course, Mulroney took it.

Davis has been out of public office for almost 35 years, yet he remains quite active in politics. In 2014, when he lost confidence in Brampton’s then-mayor, Susan Fennell, he went to bat for Linda Jeffrey in the mayoral race — even though she was a former Liberal cabinet minister. After his relationship with Jeffrey soured, he backed former Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown in last year’s mayoral contest, even going so far as to record a robocall for him. Brown beat Jeffrey by almost 4,000 votes, even though he had decided only a few weeks before election day to contest the mayoralty.

When Dalton McGuinty won a minority government in 2011 (after having won two straight majorities), one of the first post-election meetings he took was with Davis. McGuinty wanted advice on how to manage a hung parliament, and Davis was the undisputed master of that, having led two different governments in minority parliaments from 1975 to 1981.

And Ontario’s new education minister, Stephen Lecce, is trying to set up a meeting with Davis sometime this summer to pick the brain of the man who was appointed to that same job 57 years ago. (Coincidentally, Davis, then 33, was about the same age as Lecce, who's 32, when Robarts gave him the job.)

Interestingly enough, Davis has never met Doug Ford. Davis makes no secret of the fact that, although he’s still a loyal Tory, his and the current premier’s versions of progressive conservatism are quite incompatible.

In recent years, Davis has had his share of health problems, and each of his five children has admitted to being surprised and grateful that he is still around to enjoy his 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. While Davis is now physically quite frail, he remains intellectually impressive. He can still remember the most minute details of issues, files, and negotiations that he worked on decades ago.

The unsung hero of the Bill Davis story is his wife, Kathleen, to whom he’s been married for more than half a century. Little remembered (because it was so long ago) is the fact that Davis’s first wife, Helen (his University of Toronto sweetheart), became extremely ill and died at 31, leaving him a widower with four children under the age of seven.

Kathleen, a long-time friend of one of Davis’s sisters, eventually took on the job of becoming a mother to those four kids. The couple then had a child of their own. Kathleen’s devotion to the family enabled Davis to have the political career he’d always wanted, ever since he was elected as an MPP for the first time, in 1959, at the age of 29.

Former premier David Peterson once described Davis as “an extraordinary guy, cloaked in ordinariness.” That rare combination allowed Davis to feel at home everywhere: in a farmer’s field, on the factory floor, at cultural events, and at the Albany Club, where he’d puff on his omnipresent pipe among captains of industry.

He is the last premier of Ontario to have won four straight elections (in 1971, 1975, 1977, and 1981), a rare achievement, and one that’s extremely unlikely ever to be replicated. (The last premier to do it before him: James Whitney, more than 100 years ago.)

Peterson also once told me that to govern is to choose and to choose is inevitably to alienate. “By the time most premiers are done, they’re covered in barnacles,” he likes to say.

Over the past half-century, Davis has been the rare exception to the rule. Peterson, Frank Miller, Bob Rae, Ernie Eves, and Kathleen Wynne all left the premier’s office by losing elections. Mike Harris and McGuinty voluntarily left with their popularity in decline before the electorate could throw them out. By 1985, Davis had been in public life for 25 years, was 54 years old, and felt that he’d done it all for long enough. Still, he could have won a fifth straight election, had he decided to contest it. Just ask Bob Rae, Ontario’s 21st premier and the NDP leader from 1982 to 1996.

“Had he fought an election in 1985 instead of retiring, he’d have wiped the floor with both Peterson and me,” said Rae, who has no hesitation admitting his admiration for the man. Curiously enough, Davis’s closest personal relationship with any former Ontario premier is with Rae. But he also got on well with Kathleen Wynne, another former education minister, who saw to it when she was premier that a 1.3-kilometre trail near Ontario Place be named after Davis.

In Brampton today, Mayor Brown is expected to proclaim Bill Davis Day and give him a key to the city.

Try to think of a premier or prime minister who was more popular on their last day in office than on their first. They simply don’t exist anymore.

Happy 90th birthday to the most extraordinary ordinary guy in politics I’ve ever encountered.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Bill Davis was 32 years old when he was appointed minister of education; in fact, he was 33. TVO.org regrets the error.

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