William Grenville Davis

William Grenville Davis, lawyer, politician, premier of Ontario 1971-85 (b at Brampton, Ont 30 July 1929). Davis was leader of one of the most successful political parties in any democracy. He is a product of small-town Ontario. Brampton is now merely a bedroom suburb of Toronto, but when the future premier was born it was a separate, small community where people took their politics seriously. Educated in the local schools, Davis attended the University of Toronto (BA, 1951) and Osgoode Law School. He was called to the bar in 1955 and 4 years later won election as Conservative MPP for Brampton.

In 1962 Premier John Robarts gave the novice the political "hot potato" of the Department of Education, and as minister Davis presided over the most extraordinary period of change since Egerton Ryerson's day. Universities such as Trent and Brock were created. Rural schools were consolidated, forcing students to be bused long distances twice each day. And a new attitude that schools should be co-operative not competitive took root in public schools. Over this frenetic change, the calm, unflappable Davis presided, and by 1971 education in the province had been transformed.

Davis was the beneficiary of this process. He had begun to build a national reputation - in 1967 he was policy chairman at the Conservatives' national convention - and he seemed the logical heir to Robarts. At a convention in February 1971 Davis won the leadership on the fourth ballot, and the new premier, still only 42, came to power with a progressive (if rather undefined) image.

This was crystallized 4 months later when Davis forced a halt to the Spadina Expressway, a roadway cutting through downtown Toronto which had been vigorously opposed by neighborhood groups. That startling decision became almost typical. His cautious government was capable of rapid change, not least the decision in 1984 to give full financial support to separate schools beginning in 1985.

Davis's calm style (and the "Big Blue Machine") won each election, as his government's moderate reformism struck a responsive chord with the electorate. His record was good, but there were flaws. Education was allowed to starve from the mid-1970s as the public mood and economic situation altered, and despite his support of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the negotiations leading to the Constitution Act, 1982, Davis was unwilling to give Ontario's half million Francophones official bilingual status, although characteristically, he had put the infrastructure in place.

Although in 1984 he and his party were unchallenged, Davis surprisingly announced his resignation on 8 October 1984, yielding the premiership to Frank Miller in February 1985. Under Miller, the long Conservative reign of Ontario came to an end. Davis himself joined a Toronto law firm as senior counsel and that year was named a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1987 he held directorships in a number of companies.