He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1951 and attended Osgoode Hall Law School of York University. 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.
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.
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 Davis also undertook dramatic revisions of Ontario's outdated and inefficient school board system, reducing the 3,676 boards of 1962 to only 192 in 1967. Many boards had presided over a single school prior to Davis's reforms.
Davis also created new universities, including Trent University and Brock University, and established twenty-two community colleges, the first of which opened its doors in 1966. He established the TVOntario educational television network in 1970.
Davis's 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.
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.
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 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.
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 2003, while Davis played a role in the successful negotiations to merge the federal Progressive Conservatives with the Canadian Alliance to create the Conservative Party of Canada, Clark refused to endorse the newly merged party.
Davis considered moving to federal politics by running to lead the federal Progressive Conservatives in 1983 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.
He 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 made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1985, and has served on numerous corporate boards since his retirement from politics.
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' 1995 electoral victory, Harris' 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.
More recently, 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 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. 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.
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".
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,” says 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.”
There is a senior public school (grades 7&8) on Bartley Bull Pkwy. in Brampton named after him, W.G. Davis, as well as an elementary school on East Ave. in Scarborough (William G. Davis Public School).
Sheridan College named it's Brampton Campus after Davis.
|Premier of Ontario|