LETTER: Canada could use more Bill Davis

Dear Jason, Former Premier Bill Davis died earlier this month. For 14 years he served Ontario with decency, and fulfilled his Progressive Conservative  leadership with respect and kindness.

During the heated political tussle that patriated the British North America Act, leading to its renaming as our Constitution Act in 1982, I witnessed these qualities up close. From 1979-82, I worked as a constitutional advisor to Premier Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan and the lack of a domestic amending formula had led to a major constitutional crisis.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau attempted to return our “constitution” from Britain without provincial consent, and Saskatchewan – along with other provinces – took passionate umbrage with that swagger.

While political parties and provinces quickly took partisan sides, Bill Davis declined that all-out oppositional approach, and insisted on asserting a strong but largely conciliatory middle ground… tilting at Trudeau’s federalist unilateralism but recognizing the need for constructive compromise. And it is my belief that, without Premier Davis calmly bridging that divide, we might not have had our September 1981 Supreme Court decision chastising PET’s proposal as unconstitutional… a judicial ruling that ultimately led to our April 1982 federal-provincial consensus as a truly independent country.

Importantly, that consensus was in no small part due to Premier Davis foregoing Ontario’s traditional veto over constitutional change! Yet more importantly, we wouldn’t have a Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms today it wasn’t for Premier Davis’ patriotism and willingness to set aside outrage & partisanship for the good of our country.

Overall, Bill Davis, a Progressive Conservative, championed learning and education like no Canadian leader before or since. He created our provincial college system, established new universities, made a commitment to French-language school boards, founded the first of its kind Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), and established TVOntario (where, very much later, I served as Managing Director). Premier Davis was also quietly ahead of his time, e.g. creating North America’s first Ministry of the Environment and taking major steps in the protection of human rights as Ontario became more diverse.

As Premier he quadrupled Ontario’s GDP. From my perspective, Premier Davis is sorely missed as both a builder of this country and (perhaps ironically) its most successful social democratic Premier other than Tommy Douglas. His belief that expanding educational opportunities and broadening the learning experience for all would “make everything else much better”, is today hard-pressed with cancelling and other online symptoms hostile to the idea of liberal democracy.

Indeed, Davis clearly appreciated that liberal democracy didn’t flourish on self-loathing; but rather on the “bland works” process of a thousand small & reforming sanities carefully rooted in thoughtful progress. We are fortunate for the living legacy of this great Canadian. Let’s hope that his savvy style of grabbing the middle and pushing extremes to the sidelines informs us all going forward.

Bill Roberts