Ontario Premier William Davis is like a Cheshire cat in repose. His feet are propped up on the seat in front of him as the small Beechcraft airplane takes him from Toronto to southwestern Ontario for a day of executive presence. He should be nervous. He is a white-knuckle flier who surreptitiously keeps track of the altitude. But more important, his 20-month-old minority Tory government* is about to plunge into a make-it or break-it election which most voters apparently don’t even consider is necessary. But here he is, chomping on a Tueros cigar, stroking back the pale grey hair, boyish cheeks puffed up by a a smile. “I’m enjoying it,” he says quite simply.
And that day he goes to prove it, even though he knows there is little time left for relaxed politicking. He inspects the kitchen of a new Ukrainian centre, urges reporters to try the doughnuts .and spontaneously raffles off a cake at a YMCA fundraising dinner. (“If 1 were a journalist that’s what I would find a fun thing to write about.”) Whispers a trailing aide confidentially: “He’s a different man now. He
* Standings at dissolution: Progressive Conservatives: 52, New Democratic Party: 38, Liberals: 35.
is beginning to go by his own feelings.”
It’s not just because the polls show that the voters who chastened him in the last election—who very nearly ended the 32year-old Tory rule in the province—love him again. It’s also that Bill Davis, the quintessential Tory, perhaps one of the few credible Tories left in the country, finally has an issue that allows some feeling to show through the carapace of AngloSaxon reserve—National Unity. That night when he tells 700 Tories at a nomination meeting what it means to be Canadian, his usual stiffness melts. “I can’t envisage Canada without Quebec,” he says. And in private, in the plane, he puts a hand over his chest. “It [national crisis] weighs rather heavily. It’s a bit of a harder load to carry along with minority government. 1 would feel better knowing I had the people behind me.”
Inevitably that became the theme a few days later when Davis actually called a June 9 election ostensibly over his government’s defeat in the legislature on a matter of confidence, but in reality because the Tories are lusting for a majority and were looking for a pretext. Their appeal to a province where the Queen’s portrait still
hangs prominently in community centres is for provincial government strength now that the country needs it most. The topic on everyone’s mind. Davis advisers estimate, is Confederation and that’s an area where the Premier has some clear advantages just by being in power. Local issues will no doubt emerge. The opposition New Democratic Party, pushing forward behind the extended jaw of its leader Stephen Lewis, will speak up for the 312,000 unemployed. (The government made the mistake of suggesting that in future 5.3% unemployment might be considered full employment.) And just when fishermen and bathers are getting health warnings about their rivers and lakes, the NDP will continue its attack on pollution. The third-place Liberals, in traditional disarray behind their new leader, Hamilton psychiatrist Stuart Smith, will pick away at Tory mismanagement. Meanwhile, the Tories themselves will go forth with a budget that promises goodies for the private sector and preaches restraint to a conservative public already pummeled into retreat by the federal government. But the underlying issue, the Tories hope, is who will lead Ontario best at a time of national crisis. Ultimately, the
man who represents the most stability will benefit. Says Davis: “There is unemployment and inflation, but underlying those is a concern about Canada. I don’t know how it affects the vote. But it’s a concern.”
At 47, Davis seems to have bought up all the options on stability. In his reassuring, relentless monotone, he has come to epitomize a cautious Ontario much as René Lévesque’s sad, pouched face speaks of the aspirations of Quebec and Peter Lougheed’s brashness reflects Alberta’s newfound confidence. The son of a small-town lawyer, secretary to the local Tory riding association at 16, a United Church Sunday school teacher, Davis still lives in Brampton (just outside Toronto) across the street from the house where he grew up. And when he went to the city as an MPP at 29 (becoming education minister at 33), he took all the small-town verities with him. He is a family man of almost stereotypical simple tastes (“He likes Florida for God’s sakes,” says his adviser, Toronto lawyer Eddie Goodman) who is devoted to his
five children, and who moves with the big wheels without ever quite becoming one himself.
In 1971, he inherited the Tory leadership mantle and the right to govern Ontario, succeeding a long line of Tories who had each come to represent their eras: George Drew (1943-1948), tall and aristocratic; Leslie F rost ( 1949-1961 ), a benevolent dictator presiding over a decade of building; John Robarts (1961-1971), the gruff “chairman of the board,” whose main concern was how to spend money. And now Davis, perhaps the last of the dynasty, the compromiser, the careful pragmatist who has to manage a province suffering from the accumulated mistakes of the past and the pressures of the future. Davis, who is so unabashedly province-proud that at the end of a recent trip to Israel he told a reporter, “There is still no place in the world I’d rather raise my children than Ontario.” Davis, who like most Ontarians is, in his own words, “a Canadian first, an Ontarian second.” Davis, who almost certainly will be pressured to succeed federal Conservative leader Joe Clark if he wins this election and if Clark’s fortunes plunge much lower.
When Quebec’s Parti Québécois scored its euphoric election victory November 15, Davis’ response was typical. He would wait and see. There was no use getting excited. This would all take time. When Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Quebec premier René Lévesque became obstreperous with each other, Davis, in statesman’s garb, chided them for “heating up” the issue and advised them to “talk to one another, not yell.” He, instead, would try to set an example. He talked of how well Ontario treated its 800,000 francophones, pointed out that 110,000 schoolchildren attended French schools (although it was not until 1968 that these schools actually had legal status) and spoke of how new incentives were being given to school boards to teach more French. He threatened a Windsor board of education, which was refusing to build a French language high school, with legislation to force it to do so (but this was never passed because the election was called). Quickly, a list was drawn up to put Ontario’s efforts, no matter how minuscule, in the best possible light. There was everything from a French language court project in Sudbury to bilingual birth, death and marriage certificates.
In February, when Davis and his family visited Quebec’s Winter Carnival, he had a long lunch with Lévesque in the legislature building. Later the two stood chatting and smiling before reporters and cameras, like good neighbors. They had decided to “agree to disagree,” as they put it. They would “cool it” and keep the lines of communications open. But in a discussion so basic as the splitting up of a country, it didn’t take long for the very real differences to show. First came Quebec’s white paper on language which, among other things, restricted the right of English Onta-
nans to English language education if they moved to Quebec. Then Quebec published statistics that showed Confederation had cost the province $4.3 billion over the past 15 years and hinted that Ontario was the main beneficiary. Finally it was time for even the slow-moving Davis to react Responding to Lévesque’s challenge. Ontario’s April budget contained a study showing that in the past 10 years Quebec received six billion dollars in equalization payments—“a rock-bottom and incontrovertible measure of that province’s financial gain from Confederation.” Ontario, meanwhile, had generated a federal surplus of $26 billion for redistribution to other provinces in the past 16 years. And while it was true that Ontario manufacturing benefited from a high tariff wall— by $296 million in 1974—so had Quebec— by $169 million. The idea, being propagated by Quebec and going unchallenged, that Ontario would accept an economic union was simply “foolhardy,” said Davis. “The sympathy, the same feeling, I don’t think would be there if the only issue on the table is money. People would become less conciliatory.”
It’s not surprising that, apart from the Trudeau-Lévesque “alley-cat fight” (as some have called it), debate over the future of Confederation has been concentrated mainly in Quebec and Ontario. Historically, Ontario has taken the lead in such discussions, representing the rest of anglophone Canada to Quebec, and in turn trying to explain Quebec to “les autres.” The present situation has many parallels with that of 10 years ago when Confederation was also under discussion, mostly because many of the questions and many of the players on the scene are the same. One of Davis’ first actions w as to revive the Advisory Committee on Confederation (first in operation from 1965 to 1971) and once again the leadership w'as entrusted to Ian Macdonald, now head of York University, formerly chief Ontario economist. And once again, Ontario has called a conference to provide a forum where solutions might emerge. This one, scheduled for June 27, will be held and hosted by Toronto’s York University.
But Davis faces a much more urgent and difficult task. “The action span is much shorter,” says Macdonald, who is responsible for the conference. Gone is the centennial euphoria of 1967 when former Ontario premier John Robarts convened the Confederation of Tomorrow Conference, bringing together the Canadian premiers before a live television audience. It was shortly after that things started to deteriorate. The camaraderie built up through years of federal-provincial conferences became dissipated when the push for constitutional review (from 1968 to 1971) failed to produce a new charter at the Victoria conference. Since then, says Davis’ predecessor John Robarts, “Trudeau has preempted the right of everybody to speak. It used to be a Canadian debate, with
everyone involved, but now it has polarized between Ottawa and Quebec.” People in government—such as Macdonald— watched as their Quebec counterparts— such friends as Quebec Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau—slowly turned to separatism. “I watched them slowly harden,” he says. “It was like a living clinic of the birth of separatism. I guess I should feel differently about them because after all they want to take something away from the country I believe in. But people are people and you can't take away the past.”
Even this upcoming conference (with 400 delegates from all walks of life invited) is planned as a nonpolitical event, almost an admission that politicians and govern-
ments have failed and it’s time to listen to the people. Perhaps it’s also an admission that it would be next to impossible to get the premiers to sit around a table in such a friendly fashion again.
Ontario itself, whose premier was once dubbed “the rich uncle of Ontario,” is in a different position. Its unquestioned preeminence in the country is gone. The political focus is on Quebec, and the “economic facts of life,” as Davis puts it,“ have moved west.” And yet Ontario’s position in the debate remains pivotal and the shift of power may ultimately be beneficial. “Ontario won’t be subject to the accusation that it wields the big stick or runs the whole show,” says Macdonald.
As the election placards begin to sprout on lawns and billboards across the province, they probably won’t carry messages about national unity. Davis has said re-
peatedly (as have the other leaders) that Confederation must not become a partisan issue, although that didn’t stop Revenue Minister Margaret Scrivener from accusing the NDP of having “sympathy for the Parti Québécois.” Nonetheless it remains an issue the leaders must deal with. Says Davis: “When I leave politics I would like to feel we have done all we can do for the unity of this country. If I had that feeling in my own consciousness, then that will satisfy me.”
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