Sunday, August 22, 2021


He was so competent as Ontario's second longest serving premier that it didn't show under the supposed blandness that Bill Davis was a decent man. As I look back over the 11 premiers that I wrote about and talked about for 50 years, he is the guy who made the most impact on my province.

Boy did he ever do a lot. Although his faithful assistant, Clare Westcott, now in the faded twilight of a great career, told me that the boss had phoned and said that he saw from Downing that Clare had accomplished all these wonderful changes and he wondered just what the hell he had been doing all these years as a minister and premier.

In my beginning, there had been the Laird of Lindsay, Leslie Frost, who ruled as the friendly uncle from the small towns. He knew everyone, or so he said. One press gallery function he joined a circle of reporters and went around squeezing shoulders and asking about the health of their families. After the first circuit, he was massaging this man for the second time and asked how his father was. "Still dead," was the reply.

Frost's brother, a university professor, was a determined adviser and decided that Ryerson Institute of Technology was getting too big for its britches and should be cut back. As I detailed in my book Ryerson University - A Unicorn Among Horses, only brilliant stratagems saw Ryerson surviving until it was rescued by Davis and Westcott who made it into a university, that is if it is still a university and not destroyed by the present administration and jerk protesters who don't know their history.

 Frost was followed by John Robarts who acted like chairman of the board while screwing madly  anyone who looked at him twice. He was smart enough to let Davis be a good education minister while he himself concentrated on love nests. My relationship could be summed up by my trip to London after he won his convention. His wife, attired mainly in a half slip, drove me from their front door while shouting. Instead of a profile on the new premier, the Telegram ran my story about the teddy bear that they had brought home to their tot of a daughter.

I was a constant critic of anything that Davis & Co. & Westcott had to do with transit and roads. Their problem was they looked too far into the future of transportation while they got education just right. They created George Brown out of a trade school along with a network of community colleges. They saved and promoted Ryerson. Basically their administration was pleasant and decent.

I remember a trip to Italy with a plane load of Conservatives with Italian roots led by Davis and Roy McMurtry, who became a tough AG. Not everything went smoothly but boy did we survive.

There was a sunbaked hilltop cemetery for Canadian war dead in Sicily where the wreath didn't arrive. The humble caretaker's wife fashioned one out of twigs and tinfoil. Just after the premier put it in place, the real wreath arrived. A group of us persuaded the premier to stay with the makeshift one and that we would handle any reporter who dared to criticize that. At the bottom of the hill we had a rest stop where I kept assuring a nervous Davis, as we used wine to wash some grapes, that there would really be no problems. And there weren't.

Just getting a column back in those days was often a communications nightmare. And so it was before we left the island. It was 4 a.m. when I learned that there would be no chance for the tellex to work that day but  Westcott said he had got the premier's faithful secretary on the phone. So I dictated my column to her, leaving out snide comments, and she sent it to the Sun by cab. Everyone seemed a little baffled by the process but it worked.

Then I got a chance to return the favour. Our first day in Rome was mainly a tour for pictures with Canadian Tories. So the Globe reporter, an unpopular man who thought as a foreign correspondent he was superior to mere legislative reporters, didn't go. Everything stopped at the famous Trevi Fountain because a pompous little policeman was guarding it against the movie crews who always wanted to film there. A special rare licence had to be purchased, and we didn't have one. He arrested Bill and Kathy Davis. I figured out from his histrionics what he was doing and started poking my pen into his swollen chest and called for support from reporter Eric Dowd who took some time to figure out what I was up to and then joined with enthusiasm. "Get the hell out of here," I said to the former Crown attorney, and the premier skedalled to our bus parked on a side street while I continued to divert the cop.

We returned to the hotel high with enthusiasm at our escape since we had left no one behind as hostage. But that was not the end. David Allen of the Star and Al Dickie of CP and the rest of the crew featured me in front page coverage as the saviour of an international incident to get back at the Globe guy. It baffed many a newsroom.

There were many glitches to overcome on our grand tour, but then there always are on these trips. We looked forward to a quiet Sunday and a grand seafood luncheon at Pescara. The local VIPs were out in force, their uniformed chauffeurs standing beside the limousines outside the hotel. Inside, the press corps had discovered that one Canadian flag pin was good for one bottle of wine from any waiter. So we were all quite refreshed when Davis said that the reason we were there was because his trusted key adviser came from there. So we all toasted his "adviser," Nick Lorito, and didn't tell anyone he was actually the premier's driver.

Then the next glitch popped. Turned out we were double booked. We were actually supposed to be up in the local hills where Johnny Lombardi was from, and Johnny was so important in the Ontario Italian community that he was called the mayor of little Italy. So off we went for the second ceremonial luncheon that noon. The mountains of food were trotted out and Bill and Kathy Davis blanched. So did everyone else. I was looking for a quiet nook when a waiter trotted up with a message from the Ontario "president." The message was "send up Downing." So I joined the head table and struggled manfully and finally consumed enough food so the premier was not embarrassed.

Perhaps I got along so well with Premier Davis because of the special relationship between Brampton and Weston where I went to high school. In the 1950s and 1960s, the two could have been twin communities. So I knew all the gossip. When the premier and I killed time in the lobby of the famous Excelsior Hotel in Rome, we talked about an Ontario legend, Perkins Bull, and how the Davis and Bull families intertwined. Bull was a genius in many areas, from law to agriculture. The premier talked about how as a young Crown, he was gavelled into silence by Bull in a courtroom who told him to go and talk to his father about his argument and come back with a better one. In the political arena that Davis dominated, everyone seemed to know everyone, and knew that, for example, that Bull had had a young researcher, and lover, True Davidson, who became East York mayor, and that his grandson (who I went to high school with) became the Team Canada doctor.

Once upon a time, premiers lasted longer.  A decade was not uncommon. Now surviving for a couple of terms is a miracle. Is it the pressure of the endless news cycle? It is difficult to compare the quality of the leadership since nostalgia is the whitewash of  history and when the woke activists charge into battle facts are left behind with common sense. Yet by most measures William Grenville Davis was as reassuring when he governed as the wreaths of smoke from his trusty pipe. But then, like too many things these days, pipes are out of fashion. And so are our politicians who don't just talk a great game.