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TVO host talks about Bill Davis

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

Steve Paikin, left, long time political journalist, author and host of TVO's The Agenda, shares a laugh with Jamie Bramburger,  Algonquin College's manager of Student and Community Affairs, Pembroke Campus at the start of the college's speakers series. The pair chatted about Ontario Premier Bill Davis, and his contributions to the education system.

Steve Paikin, left, long time political journalist, author and host of TVO's The Agenda, shares a laugh with Jamie Bramburger, Algonquin College's manager of Student and Community Affairs, Pembroke Campus at the start of the college's speakers series. The pair chatted about Ontario Premier Bill Davis, and his contributions to the education system.

Sometimes, bland works.

Bill Davis, who for 14 years ran Ontario as premier from 1971 to 1984, and was education minister before that, was more of a compromiser and consensus builder, and not a fiery sort.

He had his controversies; refusing full funding for Catholic schools in 1971, then permitting it in 1984; shooting down the construction of the Spadina Expressway; buying public shares into Suncor, an oil company deal which alienated most of Ontario.

But Davis also helped ease in the Canadian constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and founded both TV Ontario and the province’s community college system, more than 50 years ago. He also brought in the mandatory seat belt legislation, after being pressed to do so by a party insider who lost his daughter in an automobile accident.

It is that last item, done while Davis was education minister, which he was most proud of, said Steve Paikin, long time host of TVO’s political affairs show, The Agenda. He has written a book on the premier, the first authorized biography, “Bill Davis. Nation Builder, and Not So Bland After All,” which details his political career from being a Peel MPP in 1959 to when he announced he was stepping down as Premier in October 1984.

“We have one of the most outstanding post secondary systems in the world,” he said. “One of the reasons I wrote this book is the Ontario college system didn’t just happen, it took foresight and thoughtfulness from people like Bill Davis for it to happen.”

In his first ever visit to Pembroke, Paikin was speaking at the kick off of the Algonquin College Speaker Series, held at the waterfront campus Thursday evening. This year marks not only Canada’s 150th year, but the Algonquin College’s 50th year as well.

The 1960s were an incredible time for Ontario, Paikin said. It was go, go, go, and the main concern of the Tory government was how to spend the money flooding the government’s coffers. The answer was on everything from nuclear plants, creating TVOntario in 1970 and setting up the college system.

As education minister in the John Robarts government, among his many reforms and changes to the education system, including the creation of several new universities, was the introduction of the Colleges Act in May 21, 1965, which led to the establishment of 22 colleges, the first of these opening in 1966.

“This is his greatest accomplishment, even before being Premier,” he said.

It almost didn’t happen.

Shortly after being re-elected and being named to cabinet as education minister in 1962, tragedy struck the young politician, as his beloved wife Helen MacPhee died, leaving him with four children under six years old to care for - Neil, Nancy, Cathy, and Ian.

Paikin said Davis was going to step down as MPP and Minister of Education, as he couldn’t see how he could care for his young family, while at the same time cope with the responsibilities of office. Who prevented him from doing so was Premier Robarts, who became a close personal friend and mentor.

“Robarts said for him to hold on until he could sort things out,” Paikin said. In the meantime, the Premier took on the education portfolio himself until Davis felt he was up to it.

Later on, Davis would remarry, wedding Kathleen MacKay, a marriage which still endures to this day.

When he becomes Ontario Premier in 1971, one of the first issues he tackled was the matter of fully funding the Catholic school system. Paikin said Davis had extended it to Grade 10 – this under a deal in which Quebec agreed to fund the public system within its borders, and in exchange Ontario did the same for the separate school system.

With an election looming, Davis refused to extend funding past Grade 10, even though he was pressured to do so by Ontario Catholics. The Tories won the election in a landslide based partly on this issue. By 1984, as he prepared to bow out of politics, Davis reversed himself and announced there would be full funding after all. He even surprised his education minister with that announcement.

So why the flip flop? Paikin said one reason is Davis felt guilty for winning the 1971 election on the backs of Catholic voters. At that time, the majority of Ontario was white and Protestant. When 1984 rolled around, the province’s make up was becoming more diverse, with more immigrants coming from Catholic countries such as the Philippines.

Paikin said Davis saw these changes coming to the province and wanted to get his party ahead of them before the next election, hence granting full funding to the separate school system.

Not wanting to continue on in politics, he took the opportunity on the 1984 Thanksgiving weekend to step down at the height of his popularity. Frank Miller replaced him.

“He ran the worst campaign ever,” Paikin said. He still won, which was a testament to the ongoing popularity of Davis, but the win was whittled down to a minority government.

Liberal leader David Peterson and NDP leader Bob Rae pooled their resources together to topple Miller in 1985, and so 42 consecutive years of Tory rule in the province of Ontario ended.

Paikin said when one looks back over Bill Davis’ career, one of his strengths was the ability to work with others in the Legislature, even members of the other parties, to get things done for the betterment of the province. He liked to take the steam out of issues so some sort of compromise could be worked out.

“Bill Davis is one of the most extraordinary provincial politicians ever,” Paikin said.

As for any lessons which can be learned by today’s Tories from past wins, Paikin said any political party seeking to take Ontario needs to appeal to more than just a narrow base of support to have a chance of winning government.

“It’s still Bill Davis’ Ontario,” he said, “and if you want to win, you’ll have to appeal to the middle.”

SUhler@postmedia.com