Bill Davis: Nation Builder, and Not So Bland After All

By Steve Paikin

Image of the book cover beside a photo of a bookshelf and opened book on a table.

I told Steve Paikin once that he had been too soft on Mike Harris when he had him on The Agenda. Steve was not amused: he told me to buzz off and join my other left wing friends. I do not think he meant ‘left wing’ as a compliment.

Well, Paikin’s policy of t.l.c. towards the exalted among us has resulted in a dandy book, his ‘authorized’ biography of William Grenville Davis, Ontario’s 18th premier.

Bill Davis was a builder who modernized Ontario and its education system, a giant compared to the incompetent destructive privatizing pygmies Harris, McGuinty and Wynne. As Minister of Education for a decade under John Robarts he continued the expansion of composite secondary schools, brought in Community Colleges, OISE, five new universities and TVO. During his fourteen years as Premier he gave us the Ontario Lottery, the Ombudsman, election finances reform, seat belts and rent controls. And the right to strike for teachers via Bill 100, though that happened only after massive union mobilization. Many of these policies were created during two terms of minority government when he had to negotiate with the opposition, which led OSSTF/FEESO to declare as policy ‘minority government is good government.’

Thanks to Paikin’s privileged access, we learn that it is Davis who forced Pierre Trudeau to accept the ‘notwithstanding’ clause, thus breaking the 1982 constitutional repatriation logjam. Davis’s fellow premiers (Lévesque excepted) came on board and we now have our made-in-Canada Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At this time Davis enjoyed a comfortable majority and bestrode Ontario politics like a colossus. The four-decade Tory rule seemed invulnerable.

On June 12, 1984, however, on the eve of his departure from politics, he tossed a grenade over his shoulder, announcing the extension of full funding to Catholic secondary schools. Paikin terms OSSTF/FEESO’s “protect public education” election involvement 1985 as ‘vicious’; in any case, the Ontario political firmament shook and the Tories were booted out of office.

Paikin has given us a fine read, despite several ‘infelicities of style,’ as my Queen’s professor would put it. If you buy the book, you will meet the entire Davis clan, the friends, the colleagues, the children and grandchildren. If you know one of them, don’t buy it. You will probably receive it as a Christmas gift.

About Larry French
Larry French is a retired OSSTF/FEESO member and former Director of the External Policy Department at Provincial Office.

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