By Sally Barnes
For about 30 minutes on a recent late afternoon the Ontario Legislature became the kind of place that ordinary people deserve and expect of their politicians and democratic institutions.
The occasion was as golden as the leaves on the majestic trees outside in Queen’s Park.
Not an angry word was spoken by politicians and politics was celebrated as the art of the possible by which different people with different philosophies are listened to with respect and great things are accomplished.
The occasion was a tribute by MPPs to a man who spent a big part of his life in the legislative chamber, arriving in 1959 as a 29-year-old newly elected member for Peel who would later serve as Ontario’s Premier for 14 years.
William Grenville (Bill) Davis died in August of last year, was quietly laid to rest in the family plot in the Brampton Cemetery, and last November was honoured at a state Celebration of Life attended by several hundred people and a Who’s Who of Canada’s political establishment.
Of all the events and tributes paid to our second longest-serving premier, I think Bill Davis would have been especially happy with the recent event back in his old political stomping grounds at the legislature.
For those of us who worked at Queen’s Park in the Davis years, returning to the legislative building and the chamber had its surreal moments and was a bittersweet experience.
Just getting into the building is the first reminder that things have dramatically changed. Politicians, employees, journalists, and visitors used to climb the big stone front steps, push aside the heavy wooden doors and casually go about their business.
Today, a new and discreet front entrance to the building has been created and airport-type security is conducted requiring all to deposit belongings on a conveyer belt, remove belts, and subject themselves to body wands searching for dangerous objects.
Much else has also changed. The homey members’ dining room on the lower floor where Premier Davis used to look forward to a lunch of bacon and eggs (bacon crisp), is now a cafeteria and fashionable dining area.
It wasn’t that long ago before revenue-starved media outlets started gutting their news staff that the robust legislative press gallery had its own large, third-floor lounge with a bar that at one time in its history operated as a blind pig.
The lounge was frequented by a cast of Damon Runyan characters from both the press and the legislature and poker games between reporters and MPPs went late into the night.
The cigar-smoking politicians and beer-drinking journos are long gone. The lounge area is now used for offices with a small space set aside to accommodate a snack bar stocked with non-alcoholic drinks.
I spent years in the third-floor press gallery overlooking the legislative chamber and later sat with political staff and public servants positioned off to the side on the same level as MPPs.
All the familiar faces from my day—star cabinet ministers like Bette Stephenson, Frank Miller, Roy McMurtry and Darcy McKeough and Opposition leaders like Stephen Lewis and Bob Nixon have long ago been replaced. But I can still hear their voices and the Speaker vainly shouting “order..order” over the uproar when debates and the question period got out of control.
Bill Davis would smile his way through the shenanigans, loyal to his personal motto of moderation in all things. I never witnessed the man express anger or curse.
At times things got nasty among MPPs in the legislature during the Davis years—sometimes fueled by visits to the press gallery bar during late-night sessions—but a camaraderie existed among politicians that is lacking today.
For the Davis tribute, speeches made by representatives of all four current political parties referenced the comparative civility and respect of days gone by—a far cry from the current political cesspool south of the border where violence, vengeance, lies, conspiracies, and outright hatred threatens the very existence of democracy itself.
Thankfully, things have not reached that foul point in this country but voter apathy, lessening respect for our democratic institutions and the influence of extremist groups on political parties are cause for growing concern.
Although some current MPPs were not even born when Bill Davis moved into the Premier’s office in 1971, it was obvious that he and his legacy are fondly remembered and respected and considered by many to be a role model for politicians of all parties.
There were references to his countless accomplishments and role as a nation-builder but the overriding theme of speakers was his longevity, quality of leadership, courage, commitment, goodwill and sense of humour.
The NDP spokesperson quoted Stephen Lewis as saying. “It’s hard to imagine a more decent adversary. When compared to the political dynamic today, the Bill Davis era was astonishingly civilized. “
Both Stephen Lewis and fellow NDP leader Bob Rae considered Davis a close friend as well as a strong and worthy opponent.
“You will know that my relationship with Davis was close, even affectionate. I was very fond of him and as much as we fought bitter ideological battles, there was never any malice, mostly a mutual respect,” Lewis wrote for the occasion.
Green Party leader Mike Schreiner described Davis as “a respected, respectful, accomplished and kind politician…..in a world where partisan actors continually seek to divide us, our politics and province would be well served to follow Premier Davis’s ability to compromise, to engage in cross-partisan co-operation and to respect and work with his adversaries…..may we all aspire to your legacy.”
The Liberal representative quoted his party’s former leader Dalton McGuinty as saying about Davis: “I was just one of the many who was inspired by him.”
Premier Doug Ford spoke on behalf of the government and wound up his remarks with this declaration: “While there will never be another William Grenville Davis, as public servants I believe we should all aspire to conduct ourselves in a way that would make him proud.”
Within Conservative circles and others, there are those who pray that Ford will follow his own advice.
In 1971, Bill Davis earned great credit for stopping the Spadina expressway and the destruction it would have caused to Toronto neighbourhoods, businesses, homes and parks. People over cars was the mantra of the day.
There are many who believe Doug Ford should adopt the same philosophy and cancel plans to build Highway 413 linking Milton and Vaughan. Opponents say the benefits of the project are questionable (except for developers) and the costs and environmental impact can’t be justified.
I watched the career of Bill Davis from my seat in the press gallery and then for seven years as his press secretary.
He was a wonderful human being…a good, caring and decent person. What I admired most about him as a politician was that he had the courage to do what was not always popular but what he considered was right.
When he left office in 1985 he was out of favour with a significant portion of the population because he had decided after a long and bitter debate to extend funding for Catholic schools to the end of high school.
He believed that the right of the schools to exist and be funded was undeniably established in our constitution and he was influenced by kids who told him it was unfair that public funding for their schools ended at Grade 10.
There was no political advantage to his eventual decision. Polling showed public opinion split right down the middle. Even some senior advisors and members of his own staff opposed his decision.
“Just do what you think is right,” counselled one of his closest advisors who had been with him from the beginning of his political career.
And that’s what he did.
We can only hope that the current premier, who started out rather badly in his first term but with time and new advisors has since shown a greater willingness to consult and co-operate, will practice what Bill Davis preached.
Premier Ford has a large portrait of his late brother, Rob, who created chaos as Toronto mayor, hanging on the wall overlooking his desk in the Premier’s office. Maybe he should add to his collection of pictures a discreet photo of Bill Davis.
It couldn’t hurt and might even help.
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.