The Foundation for the province we have today was put in place by a man who said: 'Bland can be Beautiful'


By Ray Rivers

August 9th, 2021



If he hadn’t been politically assassinated by his own caucus, Patrick Brown might have become the 26th premier of Ontario and perhaps formed it’s first truly Progressive Conservative government since Bill Davis.

Bill Davis: A moderate conservative in his time and what the province needs in these troubling times.

Davis, referred to himself as bland. He was a moderate conservative from all accounts. He seemed more comfortable with colleagues like Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien, Pierre Trudeau, John Tory and Bob Rae, than right wingers from his own party like Mike Harris or Doug Ford, for example.

Davis was a careful master of compromise between progress and conservation. He understood that when it comes to policy, it’s more important to do what in the public interest than to defend your ideology. And he clearly believed when it came to delivering his messages that bland beat bragging and bravado hands down.

Davis will always be the education premier to me, even though he was education minister proper only during my formative years of schooling. But he was far more than the person who modernized and expanded the provincial education system. To those who remember him, he was considered one of Canada’s best loved provincial premiers, vying for that spot with Alberta’s Peter Lougheed.

The Davis decision to kill the construction of the Spadina Expressway into the downtown core of Toronto was a brilliant political stroke.

Davis also expanded health care, implemented regional government, initiated GO service, killed the Spadina Expressway, and made the Ontario civil service bilingual. Moreover Davis played a key role in repatriating Canada’s constitution while doing more than his part keeping the country together during those early years of living with Quebec’s separatist government.

Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter and Bill Davis met often. The Cardinal and the Premier, according to provincial myth decided to extend catholic schools into high school over cognac and good cigars.

Trying to please all people usually means that you displease some. Davis’ decision to enable full secondary schooling by the Catholic church upset more people than it satisfied, and his successor lost the next election because of that error in judgement. His rationalization of Ontario’s municipalities led to an unprecedented level of urban sprawl which today is choking Ontario’s roads.

Building coal-fired electrical power plants was a mistake that took several decades and a change of government to correct. And in all his 13 years in office Davis never managed to balance his budget, even during relative boom times, averaging $2 billion in dept annually as the net debt to GDP grew from 2% to 15.2% during his tenure.

But Davis’ leadership style is what perhaps made him such a respected, if not loved, premier. There was no ‘we ‘or ‘they’ in his world, and he imparted a positive vibe of optimism to us all. He showed that it is possible to govern progressively, to meet the needs of an evolving society even when you are a conservative. And for that alone we should all take a moment to remember him.

Ray Rivers, a Gazette Contributing Editor,  writes regularly applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was once a candidate for provincial office in Burlington.  He was the founder of the Burlington citizen committee on sustainability at a time when climate warming was a hotly debated subject.   Ray has a post graduate degree in economics that he earned at the University of Ottawa.  Tweet @rayzrivers


Background links:

Remembering Davis –      Bill Davis     Big Blue –

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5 comments to The Foundation for the province we have today was put in place by a man who said: ‘Bland can be Beautiful’

  • Gary

    Marco, that is damnation by faint praise. It should read HE DID WELL.

  • Gary

    I too have fond memories of “Brampton Bill”.

    There were a couple of schticks he employed that always made me chuckle. When somebody would accuse him of not understanding some issue, he would respond with: “Well, I was just a B student at law school.” The other thing was that he loved cigars, but he never wanted to be photographed with one. He thought it might conjure an image of backroom political fixer. So, he kept a pipe handy in order that the photo would depict him as a deep thinker. I never quite got that one since the most famous politician in the world, Winston Churchill, was rarely photographed without his stogie.

    But I do agree with, Ray – yes – you read that correctly. He was a great Education Minister and I graduated from one of the universities that he created without a mountain of debt hanging over me. I will always be grateful to him for that.

  • gfraser

    He was a statesman (states person?) and that is what is rarely seen in politics today.

    Politicians forget they govern for the Country of Canada or their Province or their Region. NOT exclusively for their party affiliation or their own ego.

    cheers and nicely written

  • I’m admittedly unfamiliar with Bill Davis, but from your description I would expect to read HE MEANT WELL on his tombstone.

  • Phillip Wooster

    Bill Davis was fundamentally a decent man, a premier who valued pragmatism over ideology. Ray’s last paragraph was a good summary of Davis as a premier–a unifier, not a divider. I fear we may not see his like again as he was certainly the last great premier of this province, a man who was a proud Ontarian and a proud Canadian. Unlike the current crop of politicians, Davis was a leader more than a politician. Bill Davis will be missed.