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Bill Davis, Pragmatic Ontario Premier, Dies at 92


Bill Davis, who as Ontario’s premier from 1971 to 1985 expanded the province’s education system, created an environmental ministry, imposed rent controls and was instrumental in striking a compromise that established Canadian sovereignty from Britain, died on Aug. 8 at his home in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto. He was 92.

His family announced the death in a statement.

Mr. Davis entered politics as a teenager. He was a Progressive Conservative but, given his centrist views — more progressive than conservative — he was categorized as a “Red Tory.”

Because he rarely declared a public posture on controversial issues until the last minute, he was widely regarded as wishy-washy and even dull. But he attributed his electoral success to those very characteristics, and to a political pragmatism that left his rivals on the fringes.

“Bland works,” he used to say.

Clare Wescott, one of his longtime aides, once suggested, though, that Mr. Davis was anything but. She once described him as a “decisive and tough son of a bitch disguised as a pussycat.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised Mr. Davis for his role during negotiations on the so-called patriation of the Constitution in 1982, which ultimately granted the provinces a greater role in constitutional matters and denied Britain the right to legislate for Canada. Mr. Davis persuaded Pierre Trudeau, Mr. Trudeau’s father and the prime minister at the time, to grant the provinces an expanded role, which got them to agree to the power-sharing pact that redefined Canada’s self-identity.

“He was a skilled statesman who set aside partisanship and worked with my father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, to bring forward concrete change and uphold our shared values, like diversity and human rights,” the prime minister said.

In his 2016 book, “Bill Davis: Nation Builder, and Not So Bland After All,” the journalist Steve Paikin wrote, “Arguably, Davis’s most lasting legacy to the country was his role in securing a successful conclusion to the constitutional talks in 1981.”

William Grenville Davis was born on July 30, 1929, in Toronto to Vera (Hewetson) Davis and Albert Davis, a lawyer. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1951 and received a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto in 1954.

In 1955, he married Helen McPhee; they had four children, Neil, Nancy, Catherine and Ian, before she died of cancer in 1962. In 1964, Mr. Davis married Kathleen Mackay; they had a daughter, Meg. In addition to his wife and children, his survivors include his sister, Molly; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Described as the first delegate younger than 17 to attend a Progressive Conservative national party convention, Mr. Davis was elected to the Ontario Legislative Assembly from the Peel Region when he was 29.

Ontario, Canada’s biggest and wealthiest province, is home to Ottawa, Canada’s seat of government, and Toronto, the nation’s business and media capital. “In Ontario, you’re managing 40 percent of the country’s G.D.P.,” Brian Mulroney, a former Canadian prime minister, has said.

Mr. Davis was distinguished by his omnipresent pipe and ankle-high “Beatle boots.” As minister of education beginning in 1962, and later as the first minister of university affairs, he boosted school budgets and established the community college system and Trent and Brock Universities, as well as the educational network now known as TVOntario.

Later, as premier, he agreed to grant full public funding to Ontario’s Roman Catholic high schools. He also expanded health care and bilingual services, though he stopped short of making French the province’s official second language.

During his tenure, the government also halted plans to build an expressway through Toronto and lowered the legal drinking age to 18 from 21.

Mr. Davis’s decision not to run again in 1985 all but ended his party’s 42-year domination of Ontario’s provincial government.

In 1985 and 1986, he was a member of a joint task force formed with the United States to address the challenges posed to the Great Lakes by acid rain. In 2003, he helped negotiate the merger of the federal Progressive Conservatives with the Conservative Alliance to form the Conservative Party of Canada.

In a television interview in 2009, Mr. Davis was sanguine about how, beyond having been Ontario’s second-longest-serving premier, he would be remembered.

“Historians will do what they want to do,” he said. “But I am comfortable that I did my best, I made the judgments that I thought were right. And on occasion, I may have made a mistake.”

But, he added, “I can’t think of any.”


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