William Grenville Davis, PC, CC, OOnt, lawyer, politician, premier of Ontario 1971–85 (born 30 July 1929 in at Brampton, ON; died 8 August 2021 in Brampton). Known as “Brampton Billy” and as Ontario’s “education premier,” Bill Davis served as minister of education from 1962 to 1971 and as premier from 1971 to 1985. His government established Ontario’s system of community colleges; founded several universities and colleges, including the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE); and created public education broadcaster TVOntario. Davis also created the first environment ministry in Canada and played a key role in the patriation of Canada’s constitution.
Early Years and Education
Bill Davis was a product of small-town Ontario. Though Brampton is now merely a bedroom suburb of Toronto, when Davis was born it was a separate, small community where people took their politics seriously. Davis became involved in politics at age 15, after attending an annual meeting of the federal Progressive Conservative Party.
Davis’s father, A. Grenville Davis, was a lawyer who served as Crown Attorney for Peel County. He founded his own law firm in 1916. Bill Davis was educated in Brampton’s local schools and was a quarterback on his high school football team. He then attended the University of Toronto (BA, 1951), where he also played football, and Osgoode Law School at York University. He was called to the bar in 1955.
Minister of Education
In 1959, at the age of 29, Davis won election as Conservative MPP for Peel. In 1962, Premier John Robarts gave Davis the political hot potato of the Department of Education. (See also Education in Canada.) As minister, Davis presided over the most extraordinary period of change since Egerton Ryerson’s day. Universities such as Trent and Brock were created. Rural schools were consolidated, forcing students to be bused long distances twice each day. And a new attitude that schools should be co-operative, not competitive, took root in public schools. The calm, unflappable Davis presided over the education ministry, which at the time received roughly 40 per cent of the government’s budget.
By 1971, education in the province had been transformed. Davis once said, “Show me a good doctor, a good lawyer, a good whatever and I will 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.”
Premier of Ontario
Davis began to build a national reputation. In 1967, he was policy chairman at the Progressive Conservative Party’s national convention. He seemed the logical heir to Robarts. At a convention in February 1971, Davis won the leadership by 44 votes on the fourth ballot. Ontario’s 18th premier, only 42 years old, came to power with a progressive (if rather undefined) image.
This was crystallized four months later when Davis forced a halt to the Spadina Expressway. The proposed thoroughfare through downtown Toronto had been vigorously opposed by neighborhood groups. (See Jane Jacobs.) That startling decision became almost typical. Davis’s cautious government was capable of rapid change, not least the decision in 1984 to give full financial support to separate schools beginning in 1985.
The moderate reformism of Davis’s government struck a chord with the electorate. His calm leadership style and the PC’s “Big Blue Machine” were a potent electoral combination. Davis won a majority government in 1971, consecutive minority governments in 1975 and 1977, and a final majority in 1981. Asked to explain his electoral success, he once famously replied, “Bland works.” However, a one-time aid of Davis once described him as a “decisive and tough son-of-a-bitch disguised as a pussycat.”
A committed federalist, Davis broke from the federal PCs in his support of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s attempt to patriate the constitution and entrench the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Davis reportedly played a pivotal role in the negotiations between the federal government and the provinces leading up to patriation. He has been credited with talking Trudeau out of trying to patriate the constitution unilaterally and instead holding a final first ministers conference in late 1981. (See also Patriation Reference.) It was also Davis’s insistence on including the notwithstanding clause in the constitution that won the support of other premiers.
Davis’s record was good, but there were flaws. Education was allowed to starve from the mid-1970s as the public mood and economic situation altered. Despite his support of the Constitution Act, 1982, Davis was unwilling to give Ontario’s half-million francophones official bilingual status, even though he had put the necessary infrastructure in place. (See also Francophones of Ontario (Franco-Ontarians).) His support for Trudeau’s National Energy Program also angered the federal PCs and cost Davis politically.
In 1984, Davis and his party were unchallenged. It surprised many when he announced his resignation on 8 October 1984. He yielded the premiership to Frank Miller in February 1985. Under Miller, the PC’s 42-year reign of Ontario came to an end.
Davis joined a Toronto law firm as senior counsel and served as Canada’s Special Envoy on Acid Rain. (See Acid Rain). He was also a director or board member with numerous organizations.
Davis’s first wife, Helen, died in 1962 after a long battle with cancer. Davis raised their four children with his second wife, Kathleen, a childhood friend. He and Kathleen also had a daughter together.
Honours and Legacy
Bill Davis was named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1985. He received the Order of Ontario in 1987. In 2000, the new provincial courthouse in Brampton was named the A. Grenville & Bill Davis Courthouse, in honour of Davis and his father. Brampton awarded Davis a key to the City in 2019.
Following Davis’s death from natural causes at age 92, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called him “a skilled statesman who set aside partisanship and worked with my father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, to bring forward concrete change and uphold our shared values, like diversity and human rights, through the creation of the Charter.” Toronto mayor John Tory said that Davis “just radiated decency.” Brampton mayor Patrick Brown wrote in the National Post that Davis’s “legacy in Ontario is unmatched. He built the modern-day Ontario as we know it.”
See also Premiers of Ontario.
- Member, Queen’s Privy Council of Canada (1982)
- Companion, Order of Canada (1985)
- Order of Ontario (1987)
- Knight, l'Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur (France) (2001)
- Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002)
- Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)