TORONTO - He was bigger than life.
If a political figure is measured by his influence on the Province, Bill Davis will surely emerge as one of the true fathers of a modern Ontario society. A a graduating university student, i remember him as a small-town lawyer deeply steeped in the ultra-conservative politics of an Ontario still very dependent on an agrarian based economy buttressed by a manufacturing-centred Toronto.
His home base was then "sleepy" Brampton, population 55,000. The Family Compact and the Orange Order, his core supporters, did not look too kindly upon those new post-war immigrants from Europe who were not British.
Bill Davis prevailed nonetheless. He will forever, in my mind, be remembered for the education overhaul which centred on skills, academic competence, citizen development, growing a citizenship prepared to compete globally and preparing every student for the workplace at whatever level of academic competence.
The Community College system which so many of my generation initially resented was identified with his "genius"; as was the series of basic learning programs made available along the newly created Bloor St Subway line for kids just waiting to turn sixteen so they could go to work. Maybe as a result of his economic policies or because of the post-war boom in immigration there were jobs begging for applicants.
Lawyer Davis went from Minister of Education to become Premier. His willingness to seek out new partners for the government and to search out solutions in the labour market brought him into contact with the then rapidly growing Italian Canadian community. He travelled with them on political excursions to Italy and received "rock-star" reception, even as he was unable to win the love of Italians who seemed to prefer NDP and Liberal candidates.It did not perturb him - he was the Premier for all of the people.
Others may be able to point to his long-lasting infrastructure and road-building programs that shaped the transportation system we today think appeared from nowhere.His intervention in 1972 allowed for the creation of Villa Colombo and the service agencies it spawned.
In the mid 1970, he and Cardinal Carter came to Fr. Henry Carr S.S. where I was a mid-level administrator. From a personal perspective, younger people like me, impatient with what we saw as an ongoing discrimination against Catholics in the Schools Systems, sought elected office for other Parties (1981). We were wrong. When, in 1983, he finally resolved the Gordian Knot of equitable funding for the Separate Schools System , the year before his retirement, we could only cheer and say thanks.
He was not done. His involvement in Canadian affairs was continuous and deferential. During the 1980s he proved to be a loyal supporter of federalists in the campaign to keep the country united, just as he had been key to Pierre Trudeau's patriation of the Constitution. He was a true Canadian. Even though i never broke bread with him, as both an MP and Cabinet Minister, whenever we were in a room together I made it a point to highlight his presence. It is the least anyone could do for one who contributed much. May he rest in peace.
In the pic, Bill Davis (YouTube)