Bill Davis

William Grenville "Bill" Davis, PC CC OOnt QC (born July 30, 1929) is a Canadian former politician who served as the 18th Premier of Ontario from 1971 to 1985. Davis was first elected as the MPP for Peel in the 1959 provincial election where he was a backbencher in Leslie Frost's government. Under John Robarts, he was minister of education. He succeeded Robarts as Premier of Ontario and held the position until resigning in 1985.

Bill Davis

Davis in 2014
18th Premier of Ontario
In office
March 1, 1971  February 8, 1985
MonarchElizabeth II
Lieutenant GovernorWilliam Ross Macdonald
Pauline Mills McGibbon
John Black Aird
Preceded byJohn Robarts
Succeeded byFrank Miller
Ontario MPP
In office
September 18, 1975  May 2, 1985
Preceded byNew riding
Succeeded byBob Callahan
In office
October 17, 1967  September 18, 1975
Preceded byNew riding
Succeeded byRiding abolished
ConstituencyPeel North
In office
June 11, 1959  October 17, 1967
Preceded byThomas Laird Kennedy
Succeeded byRiding abolished
Personal details
William Grenville Davis

(1929-07-30) July 30, 1929
Toronto, Ontario[1]
Political partyProgressive Conservative
  • Helen MacPhee
    (m. 1955; died 1962)
  • Kathy Davis (m. 1962)
ResidenceBrampton, Ontario
Alma materUniversity of Toronto
Osgoode Hall Law School

In a 2012 edition, the Institute for Research on Public Policy's magazine, Policy Options, named Davis the second-best Canadian premier of the last forty years, beaten only by Peter Lougheed.[2]

Early life and education

Davis was born in Toronto General Hospital, Toronto, Ontario, the son of Vera (Hewetson) and Albert Grenville Davis.[1][3] His father was a successful local lawyer. He married twice, first to Helen MacPhee (b. 1931, m. 1955, d. 1962), with whom he had four children (Neil, Nancy, Cathy, Ian), before marrying Kathleen MacKay (m. 1962).[1][4]

Davis was politically active from a young age. Local Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Gordon Graydon was a frequent guest at his parents' house, and Davis himself became the first delegate younger than seventeen years to attend a national Progressive Conservative convention in Canada. He frequently campaigned for local Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) Thomas Laird Kennedy, who briefly served as Premier of Ontario in 1949.

He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1951 and attended Osgoode Hall Law School. Davis was a football player during his university years, and his teammates included Roy McMurtry and Thomas Leonard Wells, both of whom would later serve in his cabinet.

Early political career

Davis was first elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in the 1959 provincial election, for the southern Ontario constituency of Peel. He was only 29 years old.[5] Although Peel was an extremely safe Conservative seat for most of its history, Davis won by a narrow 1,203 votes. The election took place soon after the federal Progressive Conservative government of John Diefenbaker had cancelled the Avro Arrow program. Most of the 14,000 Canadians put out of work by this decision were residents of Peel, and many cast protest ballots against Diefenbaker by supporting Bill Brydon, the provincial Liberal candidate. Davis served for two years as a backbench supporter of Leslie Frost's government. When Frost announced his retirement in 1961, Davis became the chief organizer of Robert Macaulay's campaign to succeed him as premier and party leader. Macaulay was eliminated on the next-to-last ballot, and, with Davis, delivered crucial support for John Robarts to defeat Kelso Roberts on the final vote.

Minister of Education

Davis was appointed to Robarts' cabinet as Minister of Education on October 25, 1962, and was re-elected by a greatly increased margin in the 1963 provincial election.

Davis was given additional responsibilities as Ontario's Minister of University Affairs on May 14, 1964, and held both portfolios until 1971. He soon developed a reputation as a strongly interventionist minister, and oversaw a dramatic increase in education expenditures throughout the 1960s (education spending in Ontario grew by 454% between 1962 and 1971). He established many new public schools, often in centralized locations to accommodate larger numbers of students. Davis also undertook dramatic and, at the time, controversial revisions of Ontario's outdated and inefficient school board system.[6] He reduced the number of boards from 3,676 in 1962 (many boards had presided over a single school prior to Davis' reforms) to only 192 by 1967.

Davis established new public universities as minister, including Trent University and Brock University, and established the province's community college system. He was also responsible for the establishment of Canada's first educational research institute, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in 1965 [7] and the establishment of the Ontario Educational Communications Authority educational television network (now TVOntario) in 1970.

Davis' handling of the education portfolio made him a high-profile minister, and there was little surprise when he entered the leadership contest to succeed Robarts in 1971. He was quickly dubbed as the frontrunner, though his awkward speaking style and image as an "establishment" candidate hindered his campaign. He defeated rival candidate Allan Lawrence by only 44 votes on the final ballot, after receiving support from third-place candidate Darcy McKeough. Shortly after the convention, Davis invited Lawrence's campaign team to join his inner circle of advisors. This group became known as the Big Blue Machine, and remained the dominant organizational force in the Progressive Conservative Party until the 1980s.

Cabinet posts

Ontario Provincial Government of John Robarts
Cabinet posts (2)
Predecessor Office Successor
New position Minister of University Affairs
John White
John Robarts Minister of Education
Bob Welch


Shortly after taking office as premier, Davis announced that his government would not permit continuing construction of the rest of the Spadina Expressway into downtown Toronto (an initiative that had been unpopular with many of the area's residents). The "Davis ditch", the section of Allen Road south of Lawrence Avenue was nicknamed in his honour. He also rejected a proposal to grant full funding to Ontario's Catholic high schools, which some regarded as an appeal to the Progressive Conservative Party's rural Protestant base. Davis's team ran a professional campaign in the 1971 provincial election, and was rewarded with an increased majority government.

Davis's first full term as premier was by most accounts his least successful, with public confidence in his government weakened by a series of scandals. There were allegations that the Fidinam company had received special consideration for a Toronto development program in return for donations to the Progressive Conservative Party. In 1973, it was revealed that Davis' friend Gerhard Moog had received a valuable untendered contract for the construction of Ontario Hydro's new head office and related projects. Attorney General Dalton Bales, Solicitor General John Yaremko and Treasurer McKeough were all accused of conflicts-of-interest relating to government approval for developments on properties they owned. The government was cleared of impropriety in all cases, but its popular support nonetheless declined. The Conservatives lost four key by-elections in 1973 and 1974.

On the policy front, the Davis administration introduced regional governments for Durham, Hamilton-Wentworth, Haldimand-Norfolk, and Waterloo but shelved further plans in response to popular protests. The government was also forced to cancel a planned 7% energy tax in 1973 following protests from the Progressive Conservative backbench. In the buildup to the 1975 provincial election, Davis imposed a ninety-day freeze on energy prices, temporarily reduced the provincial sales tax from 7% to 5%, and announced rent controls for the province.

Minority governments

The 1975 campaign was far more bitter than that of 1971, with Davis and Liberal leader Robert Nixon repeatedly hurling personal insults at one another. Polls taken shortly before the election had the Liberals in the lead. The Progressive Conservatives won only 51 seats out of 125, but were able to remain in power with a minority government. The New Democratic Party (NDP) won 38 seats under the leadership of Stephen Lewis, while Nixon's Liberals finished third with 36. Soon after the election, Davis hired Hugh Segal as his legislative secretary.

Davis appointed right-wingers Frank Miller and James Taylor to key cabinet portfolios after the election, but withdrew from a proposed austerity program following a negative public response. In 1977, he introduced a policy statement written by Segal which became known as the "Bramalea Charter", promising extensive new housing construction for the next decade. Davis called a snap election in 1977, but was again returned with only a minority. The Progressive Conservatives increased their standing to 58 seats, against 34 for the Liberals and 33 for the NDP.

The Conservatives remained the dominant party after the 1975 and 1977 elections due to the inability of either the New Democrats and the Liberals to become the clear alternative. The Conservatives were able to stay in power due to the competition between both opposition parties. As there was no serious consideration of a Liberal-NDP alliance after both campaigns, Davis was able to avoid defeat in the legislature by appealing to other parties for support on particular initiatives. His government often moved to the left of the rural-based Liberals on policy issues. The opposition parties had also undergone leadership changes; Nixon and Lewis, who had posed a strong challenge to Davis, resigned after the 1975 and 1977 elections, respectively. Nixon's successor Stuart Lyon Smith proved unable to increase Liberal support, while new NDP leader Michael Cassidy lacked the support of the party establishment and could not measure up to Lewis's charismatic and dynamic figure.

This period of the Davis government was one of expansion for the province's public health and education systems, and Davis held a particular interest in ensuring that the province's community colleges remained productive. The government also expanded the provisions of the Ontario Human Rights Code, and expanded bilingual services without introducing official bilingualism to the province.

Final term

The Progressive Conservatives were returned with a majority government in the 1981 provincial election, mostly at the expense of the NDP. Soon after the election, Davis announced that John Tory (who became leader of the PCs 23 years later) had been hired to succeed Hugh Segal as his principal secretary. He also announced that Ontario would purchase a 25% share in the energy corporation Suncor, despite opposition from within his own caucus.

Davis retired a few months before the 1985 election, with him and his government still well ahead in polls against David Peterson's Liberals and Bob Rae's NDP. One of his last major acts as premier was to reverse his 1971 decision against the full funding of Catholic schools, and announce that such funding would be provided to the end of Grade Thirteen. Although the policy was supported by all parties in the legislature, it was unpopular with some in the Conservatives' traditional rural Protestant base, and many would stay home in the upcoming election because of this issue.

Davis was succeeded by Frank Miller, who was elected leader at a January 1985 leadership convention over Larry Grossman (who was widely considered the successor to Davis and his Big Blue Machine). Although Miller was more conservative, the Progressive Conservatives still held a significant lead over the opposition when the election was called. However, after a poor campaign and controversy over Catholic school funding, in the 1985 provincial election they were reduced to a minority government and lost the popular vote to the Liberal Party, and were soon defeated in a motion of non-confidence by a Liberal–NDP accord, ending the party's 42-year period of rule over the province.

National scene

He had an awkward relationship with federal Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark. Clark and Davis held differing views over fuel prices, and the Davis government actively opposed Clark's 1979 austerity budget which included a gas tax. In the 1980 federal election, Davis's criticism of Clark's budget was used by the Liberal Party in official campaign documents and it played a role in the federal Tories' losses in Ontario; the swing in support enabled the Liberals to regain government.

Unlike most provincial premiers in Canada, Davis strongly supported Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's 1981 plans to patriate the Canadian Constitution from the United Kingdom and add to it a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Davis's role in the constitutional negotiations of 1981 were pivotal in achieving a compromise that resulted in the passage of the 1982 Constitution.

In 1983 Davis considered moving to federal politics by running to lead the federal Progressive Conservatives when Joe Clark only received lukewarm support during a leadership review. Davis decided not to do so when he realized that he would not receive endorsements from western Canada because of his support for the Constitution patriation and the National Energy Program. His candidacy had been strongly opposed by Peter Lougheed, the Premier of Alberta.

Post-political career

Davis was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1985, and since his retirement from politics has served on numerous corporate boards.

Davis's reputation within the Ontario Progressive Conservatives was compromised during the 1990s by the party's shift to the right under Mike Harris. Many Conservatives parliamentarians were openly dismissive of Davis-era spending policies, and frequently highlighted the differences between Davis and Harris on policy issues. Davis remained a supporter of the party, but seldom appeared at official events. In a National Post editorial, on the tenth anniversary of Harris's 1995 electoral victory, Harris's chief of staff described the difference in their policies, saying that Davis retained power with a careful balancing act, while Harris used a bold platform to unexpectedly catapult the party from third place to first.

In 2003, Davis played a role in the successful negotiations to merge the federal Progressive Conservatives with the Canadian Alliance, and create the new Conservative Party of Canada. (Clark refused to endorse the newly merged party.) In the 2006 federal campaign, he campaigned for Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and endorsed former provincial minister Jim Flaherty. Harper spoke favourably of Davis during the campaign, and said that he learned much from Davis's style of governing. The Conservatives were able to defeat the Liberals to form the government.

In recent years Davis has returned to an honoured position within the party. He was a keynote speaker at the 2004 Progressive Conservative leadership convention, and was singled out for praise in speeches by outgoing party leader Ernie Eves and new leader John Tory. Davis was also present for Tory's first session in the Ontario legislature, following the latter's victory in a 2005 by-election.

In 2014, Davis endorsed Christine Elliott in her second campaign to become leader of the Ontario PC Party, but she finished as runner-up to Patrick Brown.[8]

In the 2014 municipal elections across Ontario and particularly the Greater Toronto Area, Davis endorsed the ultimately successful mayoral bids of John Tory (Toronto) and Linda Jeffrey (Brampton). Tory had been Davis' former principal secretary in the 1980s and was also a former Ontario PC Party leader. After incumbent Brampton mayor Susan Fennell was embroiled in numerous scandals over expenses and financial record-keeping, Davis reportedly convinced Jeffrey to resign from provincial cabinet to challenge Fennell. After taking office as mayor, Jeffrey appointed Davis to a panel tasked with bringing a university to Brampton. However, Davis and Jeffrey had a falling out over Peel Region's proposed Light Rail Transit line, as Jeffrey supported its extension from Hurontario Street in Mississauga further north along Main Street in Brampton (where it would run by Davis' house), while Davis preferred an alternative alignment along Queen Street.[4][9]

In 2018, Davis endorsed Patrick Brown in his ultimately successful campaign against incumbent Linda Jeffrey to become mayor of Brampton.[10]

Throughout his political career, Davis often remarked upon the lasting influence of his hometown of Brampton, Ontario. He is known, primarily by Bramptonians, as "Brampton Billy".


  • The Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officers' Association awarded its 2015 Honorary Membership Award to Davis in recognition of his leadership in ensuring the continued presence of separate schools in Ontario.
  • In 1987, Davis was made an Honorary Senior Fellow of Renison University College, located in Waterloo, Ontario.[11]
  • On October 24, 2006, Davis received Seneca College's first Honorary degree where he was presented with an Honorary Bachelor of Applied Studies. "It is fitting that Bill Davis receives Seneca's first honorary degree", said Dr. Rick Miner, President of Seneca College. "As one of the architects of the college system in Ontario, he is responsible for a dynamic post-secondary education environment which continues to be a pillar of our province's economy."[12]
  • The Public Policy Forum honoured Bill Davis with the Testimonial Award for his contribution to public life, public policy and governance in Canada at their 2011 Testimonial Dinner.[13]



  1. Hoy, Claire. (1985) Bill Davis. Toronto: New York: Methuen.
  2. Pratt, Sheila (3 May 2012). "Alberta's Peter Lougheed easily tops list of Canada's best premiers". Postmedia News. Retrieved 9 May 2012.
  3. Brampton Cemetery, Ontario Genealogical Society.
  4. Paikin, Steve (July 8, 2016). "Why Bill Davis's legacy outlives his political career in Ontario". TVOntario. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
  5. Toronto Sun, June 30, 2009
  6. Blizzard, Christina (October 10, 2016). "Nothing bland about Steve Paikin's new book on Bill Davis". Toronto Sun. Retrieved April 2, 2017. He's remembered for a controversial but much-needed overhaul of school boards as well as his implementation of the system of post-secondary community colleges.
  7. (1965, May 7). "Minister Confirms Plan to Establish Research Institute". The Globe and Mail, p3.
  8. Gunn, Frank (November 8, 2014). "Bill Davis endorses Christine Elliott for Ontario PC leadership". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
  9. Paikin, Steve (October 26, 2015). "The Fight Between the Old Premier and Brampton's New Mayor". TVOntario. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
  10. Frisque, Graeme (October 10, 2018). "Former premier Bill Davis comes out in support of Patrick Brown in Brampton mayor race". Brampton Guardian. Metroland Media Group. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
  11. Dr. Gail Cuthbert Brandt 'Bold and Courageous Dreams' Renison University College, 2014, pg. 131
  12. "Canada's largest college confers first honorary degree to Bill Davis" (Press release). Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology. 2005-10-24. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2005-10-25.
  13. "Public Policy Forum Announces 2011 Testimonial Award Winners" (Press release). Public Policy Forum. 2011-01-07. Archived from the original on 2011-07-20. Retrieved 2011-04-04.
  14. "New high school sports field named to honour former premier Bill Davis". Brampton Guardian. Metroland Media Group. September 30, 2015. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
  15. "Davis Campus". Sheridan College. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
  16. "Davis praised as 'education Premier' at building re-dedication" (Press release). University of Toronto Mississauga. 2010-10-18. Archived from the original on 24 October 2010. Retrieved 2010-10-20.

Further reading

  • Hoy, Claire. (1985) Bill Davis. Toronto: New York: Methuen.
  • Manthorpe, Jonathan. (1974) The Power & The Tories. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada.
  • Speirs, Rosemary. (1986) Out of the Blue: The Fall of the Tory Dynasty in Ontario. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada.
  • Paikin, Steve. (2016) Bill Davis: Nation Builder, and Not So Bland After All. Toronto: Dundurn Press.
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