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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bill Davis a very decent Ontario premier turns 80

Bill Davis, who was the second longest serving premier of Ontario from 1971 to 1985, recently turned 80, and when I saw a Toronto Star feature on a party for him, it brought back a flood of memories of my connection to him as university newspaper editor, as an editor at the Brampton Times and Conservator and as reeve of Chapleau.

When I was editor of the Cord at Waterloo Lutheran University (now Wilfrid Laurier University), Mr. Davis was Ontario's education minister and was awarded an honorary degree by the university. It bothered me for the longest time that I ran the Davis story as the headliner on page one, instead of something more radical in keeping with the sixties. But I was a good Progressive Conservative in those days, so I went with it.

As education minister from 1962 to 1971, perhaps his most lasting legacy was to establish community colleges in Ontario, a first in North America, a move that was much criticized. In fact I worked with teachers and a principal who had no use for community colleges and would never recommend that students attend them. He also extended full funding to Roman Catholic schools to Grade 13, and introduced student loans.

When I was an editor at the Brampton newspaper responsible for the front page in 1967, we ran every word Mr. Davis ever uttered on the front page. I didn't have to question myself at all as the paper totally supported him, and I simply ran the stories. Mr. Davis was also the consummate riding politician and never missed an opportunity to talk about Brampton -- which brings us to Chapleau in 1975.

I had become reeve of Chapleau in 1974, and we were starting to move forward on some major projects which would need provincial support. I had also been contacted by the Ontario Progressive Conservatives to see if I would run against NDP incumbent Floyd Laughren in Nickel Belt riding in the 1975 election.

I declined and the Tories came up with mayors from the Sudbury area to run, but here was the deal. I would be the keynote speaker at a giant rally in Sudbury if Mr. Davis would pay a visit to Chapleau.

Mr. Davis flew to Timmins to announce the election, and on the same day came to Chapleau to meet with us. We visited the site of the Chapleau General Hospital then under construction, and I had an opportunity to lobby the premier about all our plans. Without going into detail let me tell you that Bill Davis was a man of his word, and doors were opened at Queens Park.

While he was in Chapleau, he was doing a tour of main street and came upon a family from Brampton. Of course, for a moment, forget Chapleau. These were voters from home.

As an aside Clare Hoy, writing in the Toronto Sun referred to him as Backwoods Bill, wondering why he would waste his time coming to Chapleau on the day he called an election. Chapleau folks were not impressed.

As premier, many considered him very bland, but he had a way about him -- a sense of common decency, so rarely seen today in our politicians that he stands out as one of the most memorable politicians I have known.

Stephen Lewis, who was at one time the Ontario NDP leader sent the following message to Mr. Davis to mark his birthday:

"You made politics an art that was at once humane, generous, respectful and urgent. We often disagreed but there always remained a quality of shared regard and friendship, how astonishingly different from the politics of today."

Well said Mr. Lewis. Happy Birthday Mr. Davis!!

1 comment:

Michael J said...

Bill McLeod wrote:Mike: Great piece about Bill Davis. As a person who worked almost all his life in the community college system in Ontario, I always had some reservations about Mr. Davis' decision to erect an almost impenetrable wall between the colleges and the universities. In the fall of 1969 when we were in our late 20s I wrote a paper about those misgivings. As the years rolled by, I encountered numerous students who were routinely refused advanced credt for courses taken in community colleges, regardless of how high their grades were. In every other jurisdiction in North America community or junior colleges have two streams. One is terminal/vocational. The other is, in reality, the first two years of university. A much better idea I think.

Michael J Morris

Michael J Morris
MJ with Buckwheat (1989-2009) Photo by Leo Ouimet

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