The House That Bill Built

The enduring legacy of the Conservative who really wasn’t

For those who remember his time as premier, either vividly or loosely, William Grenville “Bill” Davis remains a unique political figure. A left-leaning Red Tory in Ontario’s Big Blue Machine, the former premier—his tenure (1971 to 1985) was the second longest in the province’s history—is certainly out of step with modern conservative thinking. He is an Edmund Burke or Benjamin Disraeli in a political world of William F. Buckleys and Ronald Reagans. Now 87, he is remembered most of all as an affable individual who took principled positions on taxes, social services and the size of government, and famously quipped that in politics, “bland works.”

But is that all there really is to Davis? Not according to Steve Paikin’s fascinating new book, Bill Davis: Nation Builder, and Not So Bland After All. The distinguished journalist and author believes his subject’s steady hand, moderate views and political savvy created an impressive legacy that is still firmly intact. It is an old-style political model that Canadian conservatives may be reluctant to completely emulate in public, but may want to privately borrow in (ahem) small liberal doses.

Paikin has long wanted to put Davis’s life to paper, something that he touched on in his previous book, Paikin and the Premiers: Personal Reflections on a Half Century of Ontario Leaders. Existing biographies about Davis by Claire Hoy and Rosemary Speirs did not include personal stories or reflections from Davis due to the former premier’s legendary resistance to talk about himself. Paikin felt that this book, his seventh, is “the one I think I was destined to write.”

Davis grew up in Brampton, Ontario, in the 1930s, at a time when most of the “5,500 souls” who lived there “were virtually all descended from immigrants of the British Isles.” Paikin notes that Davis loved his mother but idolized his father, a well-respected Crown attorney in Peel County. His family had a strong Christian faith, and was quite supportive of the Conservatives. Davis entered the political fray in the 1959 provincial election, winning his seat in the Progressive Conservative–friendly Peel riding by just 1,203 votes. It was enough to jump-start his long political career, and he never came close to losing his seat.

One of Davis’s great political legacies was his work on education in Ontario. In 1962, he served in John Robarts’s cabinet as minister of education. It was a position that Robarts had once held; he, “unlike a lot of conservative thinkers of the time, saw a role for deep involvement by the government.” Davis felt the same way, and worked hard to improve and extend provincial educational standards. He has been called the father of Ontario’s community college system for making this level of education more desirable for high school ­graduates.

Davis’s success on the education file made him a huge favourite to replace Robarts when he stepped down in 1970; he had three quarters of the party caucus publicly backing him. As an introvert, Davis was, Paikin notes, at times painfully shy “and at this point in his life still surprisingly weak at working a roomful of people.” Fortunately, being an introvert does not always destroy a political career—former prime minister Stephen Harper can attest to this—and Davis recovered to become the new P.C. leader and Ontario premier.

The book’s examination of Davis’s lengthy political run is, in many ways, a thing of beauty. Davis led two majority governments as well as two minority governments. This is the equivalent of a throbbing headache for even the most experienced of politicians, but Davis took it in stride. He often had a puckish grin on his face, and his sly sense of humour put people at ease. His political mentor, former premier Thomas Kennedy, once told him that “in politics you don’t often get in trouble for the laws you don’t pass or the speeches you don’t give”—which Davis adjusted to “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can avoid doing altogether.”

By now the seeds of Bill Davis’s Ontario were being planted. He played a significant role in creating TVO (Paikin’s television show, The Agenda is taped in the William G. Davis Studio), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the province’s first ministry of the environment—institutions that many Ontarians may take for granted. Along the way, he never balanced a budget.

For all the talk of his being bland, Davis could be surprisingly passionate. Consider his stunning decision to reverse course and introduce full Catholic school funding in 1984. It was “completely out of character,” writes Paikin, and “shocked the province’s political establishment to its core.” Some people believed at the time that Davis had finally given in to Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter, the archbishop of Toronto, who had continually tried—and failed—to convince the premier that provincial funding was necessary. Even his minister of education, Bette Stephenson, “knew nothing about that day’s historic announcement,” writes Paikin, whereas her deputy minister did “and was sworn to secrecy by the premier’s office.” While some have argued it was done for political gain—even though the majority of Catholics did, and still do, vote Liberal—it appears to have been a question of principle for the premier. As Davis told Paikin, “I was thinking about it from 1962 onward. There wasn’t a more fundamental issue that had been part of our political history more so than that issue.”

Davis also intervened in a municipal matter, siding with the activists, including Jane Jacobs, and brought down a “decade of planning, politicking, and protesting” about the proposed Spadina Expressway in Toronto. While he played an important part in patriating the Constitution, he disagreed with Pierre Trudeau during discussions about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, stating that extending French language rights would continue in Ontario, but that “forcing bilingualism on any provincial government by constitutional means would evoke the kind of bad feeling and resentment which will set the cause of French-English relations back many decades.”

Davis was politically shrewd. He was encouraged to run for the federal P.C. leadership in 1983, and would have had significant support. Yet his cautious nature prevented it. As the man who would ultimately win the leadership, Brian Mulroney, once said, “What Bill Davis could not do is run and lose after such a glorious career. And there was no guarantee he would win.”

There is another distinguishing feature to Davis’s character. As Paikin writes, “For a loyalist, Davis actually had a rather balanced view on the value of political parties. They were a necessary fact of life in politics … and clearly there was a place for partisanship in politics. But obviously in his heart Davis didn’t believe in much of the ultra-partisan viciousness in which parties indulged back then, and certainly not in the over-the-top ideological warfare they routinely engaged in during the Stephen Harper years.”

I disagree with the author’s unnecessarily cynical view of political tactics and strategies. This is the way the political game has been played for years in most countries, long before Harper became prime minister, and it has helped create crisper, more concentrated campaigns and policies. That being said, Davis’s queasiness about partisan party politics was vital to his own political success. He always broke bread with politicians across the aisle, and never stayed angry at rivals. While this particular leadership style would not succeed in today’s polarized political environment, it is admirable, and contains qualities that we could, and should, learn from.

What will Davis’s legacy ultimately be? He told the author, “historians will do what they want to do. I don’t worry about what they’ll say.” With respect to Paikin’s historical account, it has greatly enhanced our knowledge of this premier’s personality, permanently coloured in any so-called blandness—and shows it is still Bill Davis’s Ontario.