Former Ontario premier Bill Davis, left, with John Kostoff. Kostoff called Davis — who introduced equitable funding for Catholic education — a “masterful” leader who believed education was the answer to our ills. Photo courtesy John Kostoff

Thank you, Bill Davis

By  JOHN KOSTOFF, Catholic Register Special
  • August 29, 2021

With the passing of Bill Davis on Aug. 8, education and Ontario lost one of the last voices of reasonableness and optimism in an otherwise adversarial and tribal approach to problem solving. 

No longer do we wish to do the right thing, even if it requires compromise, but we do what appeals to our political base at the expense of good governance. Instead of a political hack who constantly had to have their ego stroked on an hourly basis, or count the number of tweets he sends out, Mr. Davis claimed to rule by being bland. He was anything but bland, but rather an intuitive leader, who read his audience but governed by principles.

I was fortunate to come to know Bill Davis. The first time our paths crossed was in Maple Leaf Gardens in October 1970, when the arena was literally filled with Catholic students and their teachers from across this province, gathering to ask that funding for Catholic schools extend beyond Grade 10.

Mr. Davis, then the Minister of Education, walked into the lion’s den that afternoon and told a respectful crowd of young people that the government would not extend funding. He did not hide behind bellicose political speak, positioning himself to say nothing or speak in 10-second news clips; rather, it was an open and honest dialogue.

As premier, Mr. Davis would reverse that position in 1984 and address a long-standing constitutional and prejudicial issue imposed on Catholic schools. I often would remind Mr. Davis of that event, and he always reminded me of how civil and respectful the audience was. He would then add, with a wink, that he recognized me in the audience; of course you did, Mr. Davis.

Mr. Davis was masterful. He led with the implementation of the 1968 Hall-Dennis Report, one of the most thoughtful revolutions in education Ontario and this country has ever seen. From this fertile report came a new approach to education, not one tied to the past but open to the future: A credit system, more student selection, revisions to teacher qualifications, the expansion of course offerings, French-language instruction, the creation of community colleges and new universities in Ontario, revisions to the textbook selection process, the creation of TVO and the recognition of the importance of news media for instruction.

He always reminded us of the importance of local communities and was always a proud booster of his hometown of Brampton. When honoured at a local school board, he used this opportunity to ask why no sports field was attached to his local Catholic school, Cardinal Leger Secondary. It soon was built and named after him in 2015.

Later in my role as Director of Education at Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, Mr. Davis was a co-recipient of our board’s first Catholic Leadership Award. He used that opportunity to talk about the importance of education, of the hopes he had for Catholic, public and French education. He also reminded us we could be at times unaware of the good work education was doing and we should stop from time to time and think about that.

He was even more vocal when he received the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officers’ Association (OCSOA) Honorary Membership Award, one of the highest awards OCSOA can give. At this gathering he spoke about his belief that education was the answer to many of our ills, and the diversity of approaches would be the tonic.

Over the years I had a number of opportunities to speak with Mr. Davis about all sorts of matters. I was struck by his decency, his lively intellect, his ability to hold conflicting ideas, of not creating an adversary out of everyone who disagreed with him, his strong support for Ontario but always reminding me he was a Canadian first. On this point he was instrumental in federal-provincial meetings and for our revised Canadian constitution and Charter of Rights.

At the end of the day Mr. Davis was decent, a statesman and a Canadian who was willing to abandon the prejudices of an age. I have not seen a politician since that struck me so fundamentally as kind and intelligent. He always had questions about the Catholic faith, the Church and our approaches. He was a man of faith, family, loyalty and service. No doubt history will attempt to speak of his perceived shortcomings, of his political mistakes; as a society we see being gracious as a weakness, of fairness and compromise as signs of failure at times, but I suspect his fundamental qualities as a leader and as a person will be beyond approach.

Goodbye, Mr. Davis — could never call you Bill — and may perpetual light shine upon you. May we always have the faith in Catholic education that you did and the hopes for our system.

(Kostoff is an author, educator and former Director of Education.)

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