There was and is a particular sensibility to the Brampton and Peel County roots that spawned the political persona of William Grenville Davis. It was a DNA that mixed modesty with decency, noblesse oblige with humanity, and courage with tolerance. Incrementalism did not mean fear of change. Open-mindedness did not mean lack of principle. It was all in the nuances and judgments that shaped the core balance of his government and party.

A clear sense of direction did not obviate or dismiss the importance of embracing dissent or contrary views. Embracing dissent and contrary views was how Bill Davis’ Progressive Conservatism could grow and prosper as a legitimate servant of Ontario’s interests at home and abroad. Self-effacing humour conveyed a healthy discomfort with the usual self-reverence that frequently afflicts those in the political class. Unlike others who served in his era and since at various levels of government, he was not the kind of person who, if he had a mirror on his desk, would never go lunch. And it was in that spirit that Davis and his government set about “keeping the promise of Ontario,” as his slogan in the 1981 majority election campaign sought a mandate to do. For Bill Davis, it was always about the Progressive Conservative Party and the government he led being competent and faithful instruments and serving the public interest. The civil service was not the enemy; it was the professional part of the balance, vital for competent program design, fiscal coherence and effective service delivery. The civil service was nonpartisan; the Davis Tory partisans were not anti-public sector. Bill Davis’ Toryism was a conservatism that engaged the private and public sectors as partners in building tomorrow’s Ontario, as well as the unions, chambers of commerce and trade associations, which had every right to try to improve public policy.

His four terms in government, from 1971 to 1985, took in ebbs and flows, small and large victories. But even his most ardent and articulate critics, like Stephen Lewis, could not dislike him.

His agenda was one of taking steady and unrelenting steps forward to sustain the balance at the core of Ontario’s economic machine. Growth, social justice, expanded education, fair taxes, strong defence of Canada — as in the national interest — whoever might have been in power in Ottawa, were key.

What were the tactical components of that balance?

  • The Board of Industrial Leadership and Development, to partner with other governments and the private sector to expand technology-based investment and jobs.
  • Bill 100 to give teachers the right to strike — which actually reduced labour interruptions in Ontario schools.
  • Creation of TVO to get educational TV out to the public and bring curriculum enrichment to the classroom.
  • The creation of colleges of applied arts and science.
  • The expansion of French language services.
  • The “universal access rule to postsecondary education” principle for all qualified students.
  • The creation of the ministries of Environment and Housing — the first ever in Canada.
  • The passing of environmental assessment legislation for the public and private sector for the first time ever in Ontario.
  • The adding of the Guaranteed Annual Income Supplement for seniors, which reduced the poverty rate from 30 percent to 3 percent in the mid-1970s, to a special seniors’ tax credit.
  • Regional government, with all its excesses and successes.
  • The most ambitious public transit investment and capital financing plan for Ontario cities ever presented before or since reflected the “Stop Spadina” and “Cities are for People” Davis bias.

But though he was steps ahead in this policy area, it paled by comparison with his tone and disposition as a leader. He did not give orders. He did not issue edicts or dictates. He reasoned, listened, engaged, grew, adapted and adopted. Union leaders, in both the private and public sectors, liked him and trusted him, even when they disagreed with him. His Clerk of the Cabinet had risen through the ranks of the Ontario Public Service, from teacher to principal, to regional superintendent, to director, to assistant deputy minister, to deputy in education for colleges and universities, before finally joining the premier as senior public servant. Edward Emslie Stewart, son of a Scottish immigrant auto-worker, rather than avoiding it, he led the public service. No unelected adviser came close to his advice or influence, and the rigorous integrity and coherence of that advice were a marvel to behold.

And Bill Davis sought candidates to run for the Legislature who would not be intimidated by him or anyone else, candidates who did not need to be in politics to make a living, leaders who would be good ministers and could stand their ground. Darcy McKeough, Roy McMurtry, Bette Stephenson, Tom Wells, Susan Fish, Bob Welch, Margaret Scrivener, Larry Grossman, Phil Andrews, John White, Keith Norton, Claude Bennett and James Auld, to name but a few, were all great community leaders with expertise, standing and impact who had large nonpartisan constituencies long before seeking office.

Reflecting on the calibre of cabinet, and looking around at provincial cabinets these days, affords us all a vantage point from which to assess how secure Bill Davis was in the high standard of talent and intellect he sought to bring into government. Labour leaders viewed him as a trustworthy friend; other premiers perceived him as decent and fair minded.

Peter Lougheed and Bill Davis clashed in the late 1970s because, after years of Ontario paying more for Alberta oil because of the Diefenbaker government’s “Ottawa Valley Line” decision — in which Ontario had to buy its oil from Alberta essentially to fund exploration and investment — Davis thought there should be a Canadian price and a world price for that oil.

Lougheed justifiably defended Alberta’s legitimate mineral rights under section 92 of the Constitution Act of 1867. The clash was made worse by a lack of leadership from the Clark government of 1979. It was a clash between two views of Canada and two kinds of Conservative.

Once Brian Mulroney rolled back Pierre Trudeau’s confiscatory National Energy Program after his victory in 1984, and once market forces were unshackled, Davis and Lougheed could renew a friendship that went back to a famous Tory policy conference at Montmorency Falls, Quebec, in the 1960s. In the late 1960s, a young opposition leader from Alberta and a young education minister from Ontario cochaired a workshop that embraced the “two nations, one country” approach to national reconciliation that Conservatives reflected on at the time.

His agenda was one of taking steady and unrelenting steps forward to sustain the balance at the core of Ontario’s economic machine. Growth, social justice, expanded education, fair taxes, strong defence of Canada — as in the national interest — whoever might have been in power in Ottawa, were key.

Bill Davis was the kind of premier who embodied the avuncular decency and moral clarity sought so often these days from our leaders. He was the premier who could endorse a multicultural urban Ontario and promote it, who could embrace the Lord’s Prayer for Ontario classrooms, and who could tell the UN Law Enforcement Conference headed for Toronto that if the-then terrorist PLO was welcome, the conference was not — much to the chagrin of Toronto’s hospitality industry.

His era was one of growth, innovation, retooling of industry, educational expansion and tax reform. Nationally he supported, alone among Tory premiers and with Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick, the initial constitutional proposals leading to the charter of Rights and Freedoms and patriation in 1981-82, and this after having attended the Victoria conference soon after becoming premier himself in 1971.

And he did the small things that sent huge signals, like having his entire cabinet sign the membership nomination papers for Margaret Scrivener and Margaret Birch, the two ministers who were the first female members of the Tory Albany Club started in Sir John A. Macdonald’s day, moving it to the front of the line of Toronto clubs that no longer barred women.

And in campaign stops, while his government built what was then the largest nondenominational French language school system outside of France, he would defend the Queen, who, he would assure the crowd, would be Ontario’s Head of State as long as he was premier! And that declaration coincided with a new human rights code that protected sexual orientation for the first time in Ontario history.

Balance and clarity: Ontarians knew what Bill Davis stood for and he knew what Ontarians believed in — clarity, clear values of fairness and opportunity and a strong sense of being Canadians first.

His time as premier saw Ontario bridge the central government’s condescension and more than infrequent “father knows best” myopia with the growing and restive assertiveness of provinces that saw the nation’s constitution as being as much a part of their jurisdiction as that of Pierre Trudeau’s. And the risk of a candid, competent and likeable René Lévesque being elected Quebec premier in 1976, actually selling Quebecers on leaving Canada, in response as much to constitutional stalemate as to all the “traditional grievances of Quebec,” was never far from Bill Davis’ mind. He liked Lévesque and thought well of his authentic and genuine populism, but he believed in Canada: imperfect, stodgy, sometimes unfocused, but still Canada.

And if supporting the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms as part of a patriation package and being alone with Pierre Trudeau and Richard Hatfield against the other eight premiers was the way to protect Canada in the early going of the 1981-82 constitutional negotiations, that’s where Bill Davis was.

In the final toing and froing in November 1981, when someone had to make it clear to Prime Minister Trudeau that the notwithstanding clause, while not perfect, was a bridge to a reasonable agreement — an agreement — made possible by premiers like Brian Peckford of Newfoundland, Peter Lougheed of Alberta and Bill Bennett of British Columbia, who sought compromise and helped colleagues embrace its promise — Bill Davis would be that someone.

Bill Davis would be the first to admit his failings and those of his government — he saw modesty as not a desirable affectation but simply as good manners.

Good manners, decency, modest and courageous progress: the Davis legacy is alive and well, and as a template for trusted Tories it is ignored and derided by the ideologically pure, to their own political dismay and folly.

Photo: Shutterstock

Hugh Segal
Hugh Segal was Mathews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen's University and a senior advisor at Aird & Berlis, LLP in Toronto. From 1999 to 2006, he served as president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. He died in August 2023.

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