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Former premier Bill Davis, who ushered in Ontario’s modern era, dies at 92


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Former premier Bill Davis, who ushered in Ontario’s modern era, dies at 92

William Grenville Davis, the Progressive Conservative premier of Ontario for 14 years, has died at home in Brampton. He was 92.

Seldom in Canada — perhaps anywhere in the world — has a political leader described his formula for success in such succinct and self-effacing terms as Davis once did.

“Bland works,” he told a journalist who inquired why he ran so boring a government.

For Bill Davis, who retired from electoral politics in 1985, bland certainly did.

He was an unstinting booster of his Brampton hometown, a peerless fan of the Toronto Argonauts, father of Ontario’s community college system, a key figure in Canada’s constitutional repatriation, unrivalled master of oratorical circumlocution and — most of all — a devoted family man.

“What made Mr. Davis special was his inbred decency,” his former press secretary Joan Walters told the Star. “He was an immensely modest man tied to the tenets of small-town Ontario, the love of God, country and the Queen.”

Davis died Sunday morning at home, his family said in a statement. “After spending much family time in his favourite of all places, his cottage in Georgian Bay, he died of natural causes at home in Brampton, surrounded by members of his family,” they wrote.

“A private family funeral will be held, followed at a later date by a subsequent public celebration of his life and many contributions to Ontario and Canada.”

On Sunday, there was an outpouring of tributes from politicians and dignitaries across the country as Canadians learned of Davis’s death.

In a statement, former prime minister Brian Mulroney called him “an entirely admirable human being” and one of Canada’s greatest statesmen.

Premier Doug Ford wrote in a statement that Davis served Ontarians with “honour and distinction” and will be “remembered most for the kindness and decency with which he carried himself every day.”

For Toronto Mayor John Tory, Davis was a “man that I loved,” both as a mentor and friend. “Beyond my own dad, there’s nobody who had more influence on me, in my life and politics.”

He noted Davis’ knack for being ahead of the curve, creating North America’s first Ministry of the Environment 50 years ago and taking the “first of many important steps to strengthen protection of human rights as Ontario became more diverse.”

In a world of increasingly divisive and often-toxic politics, Ontario needs “more Premier Davis,” Tory said. “He just radiated decency.”

For Davis, a good day was when his name wasn’t on the front pages.

Hugh Segal once described his former boss as a man who believed “that an opportunity missed will most probably come again, but an opportunity improperly seized or executed can make things considerably worse.”

Yet, through what one opposition leader called “government by stealth,” Davis steered Ontario through the transition from a prim, prosperous, Protestant bastion of the mid-20th century to the emergence of the vibrant, diverse, modern province that exists today.

In a 2016 biography of the former premier, the first authorized account, veteran broadcaster and author Steve Paikin concluded that, in many ways, “it’s still Bill Davis’s Ontario.”

Jim Maclean, a radio reporter at Queen’s Park during the 1970s, said that even decades after Davis left office “I and many others always called him premier, because he always deserved it.”

To some former MPPs and Queen’s Park veterans, the Davis years were the golden age of civility and collegiality in the government of Ontario. Among his greatest admirers are politicians who belong to opposition parties or once considered him a political rival.

“It is hard to believe that premier Davis has left us,” Kathleen Wynne, a Liberal and Ontario’s 25th premier, tweeted on Sunday. “A decent, kind man, shrewd politician and caring human being.”

“I faced him but I never disliked him … I admired him,” said David Peterson, who became Ontario’s Liberal premier four months after Davis’s retirement in 1985. (Peterson is now vice-chair of Torstar, which publishes the Toronto Star.)

“He was the most important Ontario politician of the last 50 years.”

For the generation that came of age while he was premier, Davis remained the archetypal Ontario leader — straddling the vast middle, scrupulously observing the proprieties of the time, practising politics as the art of the possible.

While “bland works” will be cited as the pipe-puffing Davis’s political epitaph, the truth, as always, is somewhat more complicated.

Along the way, he had sufficient initiative and taste for controversy that he halted the Spadina Expressway, created TVO, built the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre), founded the community college system, established rent controls, bought a stake in an oil company, extended full funding to Roman Catholic high schools, bought a corporate jet that he was soon shamed into selling.

“So much of what Ontario is today, he did or helped to do. And his successors did not overturn it,” Paikin said Sunday. “There’s just so much that his fingerprints are on that survives to this day because he understood the importance of social cohesion and making sure that his decisions had a lot of buy in.”

Al Dickie, a former press gallery reporter who went to work for a Davis cabinet minister, said “I never met a more unflappable politician” than Davis, but “beneath the bland exterior there lurked a competitive personality.”

And beneath the placidity of Davis’s manner and times, forces were roiling that would end the 42-year run of the Progressive Conservatives in Ontario and shift the tectonic plates of provincial politics for a generation.

William Davis — whom his mother called Billy — was born in 1929 and, from childhood, was steeped in the political gossip of his Crown attorney father. He played university football, graduated from law school, taught Sunday school.

At just 29, Davis was elected MPP in June 1959, taking over the riding held by former premier T.L. Kennedy. “I was old for my age,” he once quipped. From the lips of Bill Davis, quips were the camouflage for his basic shyness.

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Early on in life, Davis knew tragedy. He lost his first wife, Helen, mother of his four children, to cancer shortly after entering the legislature.

In a decision of uncharacteristic alacrity, he was remarried within a year to Kathleen, a friend from childhood summers at Honey Harbour, with whom he had a fifth child.

In 1962, he was appointed education minister in the government of John Robarts – a man as bibulous and ribald as Davis was abstemious and reserved. And in 1971, Davis succeeded Robarts and became premier.

He led the PC party through four elections, the first and last — in 1971 and 1981 — producing majority governments, the campaigns of 1975 and 1977 ending in minorities.

To be sure, Bill Davis didn’t get off to a smooth start as first minister. His first term was studded with scandal, and he was spanked with a minority government in 1975.

It was then that he began evolving in demeanour, the change so gradual it was only really noticeable in retrospect.

He swapped the cigars that gave him the look of a smug, well-fed Bay Streeter for the pipe that cast a more avuncular image. His awkwardness dissipated as his confidence grew. The folksy, dependable Mr. Ontario persona emerged.

As former attorney general Roy McMurtry recalled in his recent memoirs, Davis maintained “a cautious but forward-looking outlook, and while he believed that government should be progressive, he did not think it should be constantly in people’s faces.”

For journalists, assignment to the Queen’s Park press gallery was like joining Alan Turing’s Second World War team trying to crack the Enigma code.

Rick Haliechuk, a former Star reporter, said Davis perfected the art — smiling his way through oratorical detours, jests, cryptic musings — of using a lot of words to say not much of anything.

His decisions would be revealed, Haliechuk recalled, “in the fullness of time.” In the meantime, the premier had “no plans to have plans.”

Davis was famously unworldly, Joan Walters recalled.

In 1984, she travelled with the premier and another Davis aide to Buffalo to an international business event at the old War Memorial Auditorium. Across the building’s face a huge banner said: “Welcome to the Boss.”

Davis, she said, blushed and thought it was a somewhat over-the-top welcome for a routine speaking engagement.

Capsizing in laughter, Walters and her colleague had to inform their boss it was a welcome for Bruce Springsteen, playing the Aud that evening. But Davis laughed along.

“He was always an exceptionally good sport,” Walters said.

After regaining a majority in 1981, Davis played a key role in the patriation of Canada’s Constitution and establishment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

His national profile produced inevitable pressure to seek the federal PC leadership in 1983. But with animosity from Alberta over his support for the federal Liberals and Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program, and from Quebec over his support for a constitutional agreement that excluded that province, it became clear a unilingual anglophone from Ontario stood little chance.

By the early 1980s his own party’s right wing was growing restless under Davis’s investment in the Suncor oil company, his penchant for governing with the support of a kitchen-cabinet of cronies from his Tuesday morning breakfast club at the Park Plaza hotel.

When Davis announced in June 1984 his decision to extend full funding to Roman Catholic high schools, his caucus was shocked by a reversal they’d been informed of only an hour before, and the rural and hinterland base of the party was outraged.

Davis knew in his conscience, he would later say, that it was a constitutional obligation and “the right thing to do.”

But egged on by outraged Anglican Archbishop Lewis Garnsworthy, the small-c conservatives in the party tipped toward revolt.

Three months after Davis announced his retirement from politics at Thanksgiving 1984, the right-wing Frank Miller was elected to succeed him, in large part as pushback against the Catholic schools decision and the Davis agenda of moderation in almost all things.

The rightward lurch produced the slimmest of minorities for Miller in the May election that year. Six weeks later, a Tory regime that had lasted more than four decades fell to a historic Liberal-NDP accord.

In the decade that followed, Queen’s Park, the former sleepy hollow of Canadian politics, became a game of musical chairs: the David Peterson Liberals followed in 1990 by Bob Rae and NDP, the NDP followed five years later by the hard-right shift of Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution.

Through those years, Davis remained accessible to successors who valued his views. His advice was sought by “many politicians, regardless of political stripe,” said former Toronto Star publisher John Honderich, who first met Davis as a Parliament Hill reporter in the ‘70s.

“I came to treasure the occasional pearls of wisdom offered to me by Premier Davis, even as I served as premier,” Dalton McGuinty wrote in his memoir.

“He would phone sometimes or I would see him at events, where he would inevitably receive more applause than me.”

In his critical biography of the former premier, journalist Claire Hoy recalled how, on Davis’s first trip to Israel, he looked out at the landscape and said: “It’s nice. It reminds me of the Caledon hills.”

To Davis, Hoy wrote, all the world was measured against Brampton.

Just as in Ontario, all the premiers that followed have been measured against Bill Davis.

With files from Jennifer Yang

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