William G. Davis 1929-2021
If you were sitting in an audience that Bill Davis was addressing, you knew that no matter his topic, you were in for some fun first. As a native son of Brampton, Ont., there would be more than a few complimentary remarks about his home town, what a great place it was to live and how investors were always welcome. Next, Davis – who spoke with the speed and agility of an auctioneer – would begin to pick out people that he knew and take a few pokes at the expense of each in turn.
As Davis worked his way through the crowd, you could see others sitting a little straighter, hoping they’d get noticed, and preening after any words were spoken about them, even if Davis had made them look silly. No matter what he did or said, no one could stay angry at him for long. What else could you expect from a political leader that so many people called Billy as if they’d known him since grade school?
If you met Davis face to face, there was little difference from the public manner of the man who won four elections in Ontario and was in office for fourteen years. He’d remember your name and have something pointed to say. One of my first stories after I joined Maclean’s in 1978 was the inside scoop on a multi-million dollar aid package from the Ottawa and Ontario governments to steer a Ford engine plant to Windsor, Ont., rather than Ohio. The final elements had been agreed at the Calgary Stampede where Davis and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau were visiting. Davis playfully asked me six different ways from Sunday where I’d got my information. I just smiled and pretended to be him, dodging questions in the Legislature.
But his words and his ways were not his only strengths. People trusted him because he could be whatever you wanted him to be. If you wanted a left-wing socialist, there was Ontario’s 25 percent interest in Suncor. If you wanted a man of the people, there were rent controls that saved many from scheming landlords. If you wanted the best in education, he was the man of the century because of the universities and community colleges he built. If you wanted public transport and fewer cars on the road, he killed the Spadina Expressway and launched GO Transit. And he survived all scandals, even those that touched him, because no one believed he had a conniving bone in his body. Unlike most politicians who retire or are defeated and then disappear from public view, Bill Davis has left a legacy that will be with us always.