Bill Davis already has the key to Brampton’s heart
Originally published November 25, 2019.
“Show me a good doctor, a good lawyer, a good whatever and I’ll show you a good kindergarten teacher...” – Bill Davis
At the Toronto City Summit Alliance in 2003, William G. Davis, a man who kept his emotions and his political ideology in check for most of his adult life, opened up his heart and delivered an impassioned (and off the cuff) defence of education and educators.
He said: “I am prepared to go on record as saying that the teaching profession deserves our support. They are competent. They are not underworked and overpaid. They are in many respects the most relevant profession we have in the province of Ontario. Show me a good doctor, a good lawyer, a good whatever and I’ll show you a good kindergarten teacher, a good high school teacher and a good university professor. There is no more important commitment that a government can make than to education. There really isn’t.”
With the profession under siege from the soon to be toppled far-right Progressive Conservative government of the day, Davis, the second-longest serving premier in the province’s history (1971-85), a Progressive Conservative himself, surprised the audience (and the ruling party) with his stirring defence.
Bill Davis told Tim Hudak he needed more people around him who represented the "middle"
Davis had plenty of reasons to bare his soul. He had a daughter and two daughters-in-laws in teaching, and his wife Kathleen was also a former teacher. In 1962, premier John Robarts made the 33-year-old MPP for the rural riding of Peel the minister of education. Until winning the premier’s job in 1971, he led the greatest expansion of Ontario’s education system since Egerton Ryerson.
Put a check mark beside his name when it comes to founding the community college system, the University of Toronto-Mississauga, the revamping of the school board system, full funding for separate schools, and the creation of TVO, the province’s educational network.
Whether it was defending educators or Canadian sovereignty during the riot-torn days of Quebec separatism, or installing regional government and creating modern-day Brampton and Mississauga, Davis always worked under a strict civil code of conduct.
He said public service was based on working for the betterment of all constituents.
In our modern-day world of tribal politics and non-stop attack ads, he is almost a relic, a decent man who operated best from the political middle.
And that’s where you’ll find the rather frail 90-year-old icon on Monday night at the Rose Theatre. He’ll be the centre of attention at a celebration that presents him with the key to the city. A vehicle procession will carry the former premier from his nearby home to the ceremony. The formal key presentation by Mayor Patrick Brown will take place at 7 p.m. and will include tributes from Davis’s former colleagues and admirers.
It’s unclear how the city’s key will fit into his vast portfolio of honours including a companion of the Order of Canada, a knight in the l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur, and the Order of Ontario, but considering the fact he is affectionately nicknamed “Brampton Billy”, and has spent most his life cheerleading for his beloved home town, it will likely be near the top of his list.
No doubt Brown, a long-time acolyte, is a catalyst behind the newest Davis honour. In one of his toughest stretches as leader of the Ontario PC party, he once travelled to “Brampton North”, Davis’s cottage on Georgian Bay, to seek advice from his political mentor.
Brown later summed up his feelings for the grey eminence of the PC party when he wrote a dedication to him in his book Takedown: The Attempted Political Assassination of Patrick Brown. He said: “To my mentor William Grenville Davis who taught me a proud Conservative can also care deeply about the environment, social justice issues and labour rights. He taught me the importance of a big tent and being open to good ideas from all sides. I thank him for showing me there is a better path than the deeply divided ideological battles we see dictating the politics of our day.”
No wonder Davis supported his candidacy when he ran against Linda Jeffrey for mayor in 2018. It could have been the weight that tipped the scales in Brown’s favour on election night, when he scored his surprising victory. While almost every other sitting politician in Brampton, from all levels of government, had thrown their support behind Jeffrey, Davis, always his own man, saw something in Brown that he liked. He didn’t listen to the pundits or the media or even insiders in his own party.
Davis’s support of candidates is political gold, but he has a rather spotty record. He joined the Linda Jeffrey camp when she sought to toss out Susan Fennell in the 2014 vote – despite the fact she was once a cabinet minister in the Liberal government at Queen’s Park. But he displayed the strength and wisdom of knowing when to change course, after realizing Jeffrey was not taking his city in the right direction.
He also supported Belinda Stronach in her ill-fated bid to win the 2004 federal Conservative party leadership. Davis’s backing gave her a much-needed shot of credibility. Sometimes his non-support was just as critical. When the neo-con revolutionaries in the PC party took power in the late 1990s, Davis slipped quietly to the sidelines. The party’s eventual defeat resulted in 15 years in the political wilderness. When Tim Hudak was elected party leader in the run-up to the 2011 vote, Davis said nothing. Which said everything. His silence over the Doug Ford premiership also speaks volumes.
He was the man who epitomized the “progressive” in PC, and he wasn’t about to show support for anyone who Davis felt would take the party in the wrong direction. He once told former PC leader Tim Hudak he needed to get people around him who represented the middle. Hudak didn't listen. Where is he now? Davis clearly sees Brown as a leader who represents his own progressive ideology. Brown's work to win over labour union support is a page right out of his mentor's book. Of course, Davis actually helped push through many of their key objectives; Brown will have to show the same courage or his conviction will continue to be questioned.
Davis sought compromise while premier. He tossed out right wing ideology when he got the province to purchase Suncor, a detestable form of socialism, said his detractors. When he stopped the Spadina Expressway during his first year as premier, the development industry was aghast. When he famously said, “If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop,” he became the darling of the fledgling green movement.
Sustainability became a key point in his evolving ideology, and again, put the PCs in good standing with many who helped grow the party tent.
Few were surprised when, in his post-political life, he won The Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award (named after the famed urbanist who extolled sustainability), given to a person who has made an extraordinary contribution to the public realm over many years.
His search for consensus, in politics and life, became known as “the Davis way.”
His decency as a husband, father and grandfather will no doubt be his lasting legacy. And those who have worked closely with him, or have heard him speak extemporaneously in public, still admire his quick wit. A ring from “Mr. Davis” was always the highlight of the day for anyone lucky enough to receive one of his stirring phone calls.
For 42 years, the Big Blue Machine ruled Ontario. Davis was the last in a quiet continuum of post-war premiers that began with George Drew, and ran through Leslie Frost, John Robarts, and finally the famous Bramptonian. They all operated like chairmen of the board rather than as politicians, and Davis was soon seen as the ultimate centrist more concerned with getting things done for his province than playing political games and ruling like a dictator behind the scenes. Brown, after he hands over the key, would do well to learn that lesson.
Davis was only 55 when he left office, but it seems like the 34 years he hasn’t been premier have flashed by in an instant.
His accomplishments are so numerous over his 90 years, his Wikipedia file would take a week to read. Google his name and there are almost four million entries. When Steve Paikin, the TVO host, finally corralled him long enough to write his biography (Bill Davis: Nation Builder, And Not So Bland After All), he couldn’t keep it under 600 pages.
If all politicians have a shelf life, Davis figured his time as premier needed to end after 14 years. He didn’t want to stay long enough to lose his popularity, or an election.
In an interview on TVO when his Davis book was released in 2016, Paikin recalled a reporter confronting Davis during his premiership and asking, “why do you run such a boring bland government?”
Because “bland works,” he said.
Paikin had the perfect subtitle for his book. He could also point out that David Peterson, Frank Miller, Bob Rae, Ernie Eves, and Kathleen Wynne all left the premier’s office after losing elections. Mike Harris and Dalton McGuinty voluntarily left with their popularity in tatters and before the electorate could throw them out. Doug Ford might be lucky to fulfill his four-year mandate. Davis might counsel Brown to relax his impulse to seek out his old job and focus on his current one. The Davis approach would surely advise getting Brampton back on track as the best way for Brown to show the broader public his true virtue as a leader: that he isn’t blinded by power and ambition, even if the PCs desperately need a re-set.
First, steady the ship you’re captaining, Davis would say.
It will be clear to those attending Monday night’s ceremony at the Rose Theatre, they won’t see his likes in the political arena again.
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