By Sally Barnes
As condolences poured in over news of the death of former Ontario Premier Bill Davis, I found comfort in thinking about the good times and the privilege I had to work with him, his family, and a lot of other wonderful people.
By now, the public has been well reminded about his many accomplishments as statesman and setting the gold standard for integrity, honesty, and honouring the responsibility of public office.
I’d like to share some personal thoughts and experiences that also characterize the man who accomplished so much despite tough odds and proved that compromise, kindness, goodwill, and respect can go a long way in politics and everything else.
I was surprised to hear in reaction to his death that Bill Davis had no enemies—that everyone loved him.
Well, people who say that have short memories.
I remember when he introduced mandatory seat belts in this province and the personal abuse he took from members of his own party, media outlets, and others who regarded the move as a violation of their liberties.
Sound familiar? Today, some of those same people would oppose vaccinations!
As in all major issues, Mr. Davis took the public temperature and listened to the arguments for and against.
And, as in many cases, he was especially influenced by a situation that hit close to home.
Eddie Goodman was a close friend and advisor. His beautiful young daughter was returning home from university in London and was killed in a car crash. Everyone said there was evidence she may have lived if she had been wearing a seatbelt.
There was no greater supporter of family and love of children than Bill Davis. The Goodman tragedy broke his heart—as it did others. As premier, he was able to do something about it.
We will never know how many thousands of lives have been saved by the resulting legislation that made us all buckle up to save ourselves and others.
And there was the gory battle over extending public funding of the separate school system.
The debate polarized the public and exposed the hatred and bigotry that exists to this day among so-called religious people of all faiths.
Those of us involved at the time will never forget the gut-wrenching issue over the system that was mandated by our constitution but was originally publicly funded only to the end of Grade 8 and more recently to Grade 10.
The arguments were valid and passionate that in the day’s multicultural society it was unjust that only Catholics should have their own publicly funded system while other religious groups were denied the privilege. I suspect that argument will never cease and indeed intensify as our society grows more diverse.
Mr. Davis respected tradition and history. He also sympathized with the separate-school kids who told him their parents couldn’t afford to pay to keep them in their schools until they completed grade 13.
Mr. Davis’s own staff and advisors were bitterly divided.
Finally, he made one last call to an advisor who had supported him from the outset of his career.
“He said to me, ‘Bill, just do what you think is right,’” Mr. Davis confided later. He insisted to the end that he never regretted the decision.
Well, how can you criticize a politician who did what he thought was right despite threats and possible damage to his career and his party?
(As it turned out, the damage did occur—but it was his successor who paid the price in the election that followed Mr. Davis’s resignation from politics in 1985.)
Bill Davis had a reputation for procrastination. When the media hounded him for timelines, he would drive them crazy with the assurance that things would happen “in the fullness of time.”
But when the rubber met the road, he acted decisively and with strength. He took on Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to break the logjam and enabled the repatriation of our constitution.
In these days following Mr. Davis’s death I have also had cause to smile—even chuckle out loud with friends and former colleagues—about some of the quirky characteristics of this politician we much loved and respected.
No one was more competitive than William Grenville Davis. He loved to win—whether it was in a cribbage game with an old Brampton pal, a ball game between the press gallery and the premier’s office staff, on the campaign trails, or weekly $2 football bets with friends and foes where money never changed hands.
He had a soft side not everyone saw.
Unflappable at times of great crisis in government, he was put off his game if there was an issue at home, such as an offspring experiencing typical teenage behaviour. (When elder son Neil insisted on wearing long hair fashionable at the time, his staid and conservative father was caused no end of discomfort.)
No matter where he was or what time it was, he insisted on going home to Brampton to “count noses” with his family at breakfast the next morning.
He didn’t think twice about cancelling an important meeting to attend the funeral for the wife of a press gallery member who was left widowed with two young kids—the same cancer having claimed Mr. Davis’s first wife and the mother of their four young children.
It was also common for him to quietly take aside a member of the media, public servant, or fellow MPP from all parties when word had it their marriage was in trouble or there was some other personal issue at play.
He had many quirks—an ice cube in his black coffee, seldom if ever carrying cash (which required staff to always have money quickly available if an event called for the premier to make a donation), and dislike for going to the dentist.
As a newcomer to the premier’s office, I quickly noticed a strange number of appointments with a Dr. Hori and finally mustered the nerve to inquire if there was a serious medical issue I should know about. Thankfully, no. Mr. Davis was the patient from hell. Poor Dr. Hori was his dentist and Bill Davis was known for finding every excuse possible for chickening out on appointments with him.
We also chuckled when our much loved “Miss A.”, the premier’s long-serving secretary who went back to his Minister of Education days, was going over her boss’s account and expressed concern that the family was spending an inordinate amount on Cornflakes.
She was relieved to find out Cornflakes was daughter Kathleen’s horse and riding lessons are not cheap.
He would always find time in a crushing schedule to meet with students—some hoping for a career in journalism or politics.
Over the years, I have heard from some of those, who say their careers were influenced by their meetings in the premier’s office. Among them is Jim Watson, the very successful mayor of Ottawa.
One April, I was contacted by the Cancer Society and asked if the premier would assist in promoting the annual Daffodil Day fundraising drive. Knowing he would be anxious to do so, the challenge was to come up with an idea.
Nick Lorito, the premier’s driver whose Davis days also went way back to Ministry of Ed days—and his provider of advice whether it was requested or not—became a willing accomplice. Nick and I donned white rabbit suits and with a photographer in tow marched into our boss’s office where he was in a meeting, presented him with a huge display of daffodils and the picture was on page one of the Toronto Star the next day.
You could get away with things like that working in Bill Davis’s office.
When things went wrong, there were seldom reprimands or even discussions. You knew when you screwed up and suddenly you were Miss Barnes or Mr. Lorito and there was frost on the windows even in July.
I once talked him into flying to Timmins to see at first hand the carnage of an ongoing wildfire. It was on a Friday and we had cancelled his planned escape to his much-loved cottage on Georgian Bay. Suffice it to say there was little chatter on the trip and there was frost on the windows. Story and picture of the Timmins flight were on page one of the papers the following day.
He was a humble man. In 1989, the board of directors in charge of the new multi-use centre with a retractable roof in downtown Toronto proposed that the building be named after Bill Davis to recognize his key role in its construction. He declined, saying it would be inappropriate to do so. SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre) was born.
More recently, the City of Brampton wanted to erect a statue of its famous long-time MPP and avid promoter. Mr. Davis declined that, too, saying he had received more than his fair share of commendations in his lifetime.
And so it goes… so many memories and my profound gratitude that I had the privilege of working with a man responsible for many of the blessings we Ontarians take for granted today.
John Tory, Hugh Segal, and others admit that the years we had together working with Bill Davis were among the best of our lives.
It was a simpler, gentler time when the premier and NDP leader Stephen Lewis would duke it out in the Legislature and then we’d see them chatting and chuckling together behind the Speaker’s Chair. One had made decisions the other had opposed. They had just been doing their jobs and they respected each other.
Now, Stephen Lewis battles inoperable cancer and Bill Davis is gone.
His wonderful wife Kathleen and the Davis children, whom we watched grow up and take their place in the world and have kids and grandkids of their own, will say a quiet goodbye to their beloved husband and father.
Hopefully, soon the rest of us can gather to hug each other and give thanks for having shared a remarkable life well-lived.
Sally Barnes has enjoyed a distinguished career as a writer, journalist and author. Her work has been recognized in a number of ways, including receiving a Southam Fellowship in Journalism at Massey College at the University of Toronto. A self-confessed political junkie, she has worked in the back-rooms for several Ontario premiers. In addition to a number of other community contributions, Sally Barnes served a term as president of the Ontario Council on the Status of Women. She is a former business colleague of Doppler’s publisher, Hugh Mackenzie, and lives in Kingston, Ontario. You can find her online at sallybarnesauthor.com
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