Davis won four elections, two minority governments bookended by two majorities, though his influence extended far beyond Ontario’s borders.
He was a key player in Pierre Trudeau’s crusade to patriate the Constitution, which later came back to haunt Davis when he was touted to lead the federal Conservatives.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “deeply saddened” to hear of Davis’ death.
“The former premier of Ontario leaves behind an incredible legacy of service — and I have no doubt that the impact of his work will be felt for generations to come,” Trudeau tweeted.
“He leaves a legacy like few others, a legacy that will go on building a stronger, fairer and more prosperous Canada for decades to come, a legacy which will help people build better lives,” Tory added.
In a tweet, premier Doug Ford said Davis “served the people of Ontario with dignity and class.”
“We will be lowering flags to half-mast across the province in his honour,” he added.
Davis’ family says a private funeral will be planned followed by a public celebration to be announced at a later date.
Hailing from Brampton, William Grenville Davis’s lifelong passion for politics began at age 15, when he attended a federal Conservative annual meeting.
Davis attended Osgoode Hall Law School at York University and the University of Toronto, where the star high-school quarterback played football with future cabinet ministers Roy McMurtry and Thomas Wells.
McMurtry, who was three years younger than Davis, recalled that the future premier was not to be underestimated — either on the field or in the political arena — despite his “very laid-back personality in the minds of many people.”
“I realized at that early stage that he was a highly-competitive person,” McMurtry said in a 2008 interview.
“And I say that because I think a number of political colleagues and political opponents — particularly political opponents — underestimated his highly competitive nature, which he did not wear on his sleeve.”
His political career began when the lawyer was hand-picked by cabinet minister and interim premier Thomas Kennedy to run in his riding of Peel, winning the seat in 1959. He nearly lost the election, due to former prime minister John Diefenbaker’s decision to cancel the Avro Arrow, putting 14,000 employees — most of whom lived in the riding — out of work.
Davis’ ascent to power seemed to be written in the stars. At age 33, he landed in cabinet as Ontario’s new education minister — one of the most important jobs in government.
That same year, his young wife Helen died of cancer after a long illness, leaving behind their four children. He married his second wife Kathleen a year later and together, they had a daughter, Meg.
Davis’ career took off during his nine years in education — a time of massive change in Ontario schools — and is credited with creating the province’s Community College System.
In those days, Ontario’s population was booming and education was a top-spending ministry, consuming about 40 per cent of the provincial budget.
Davis became the first minister of University Affairs less than two years later, creating two new universities, dramatically reducing the number of school boards and establishing public broadcaster TVOntario as an educational initiative.
He also cultivated a following as he criss-crossed the province to open new schools, which served him well when he launched his leadership drive after then-premier John Robarts quit in 1970.
It was tough contest, but Davis managed to beat rival Allan Lawrence by a mere 44 votes. He was sworn in as premier on March 1, 1971.
Rarely seen without his pipe or Beatles boots, Davis earned a reputation for being cautious and playing his cards close to the chest. He delayed decisions until the last possible moment, often frustrating journalists with rambling replies to their prying questions.
Even in his 80s, decades after he’d left the political spotlight, Davis couldn’t help toying with reporters. When he tired of their questions, he’d suggest his own — then refuse to answer.
His detractors called him wishy-washy, a leader without vision, a man whose propensity for procrastination was almost pathological. But “Brampton Bill” kept winning.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown tweeted Sunday that Davis was his city’s “most beloved resident … Ontario’s most successful premier and the definition of decency.”
Aides said he loved the disguise. Beneath that facade was a tough and savvy politician who always found a way to grab the middle ground and push everyone else off to the sidelines — a strategy adopted by former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty.
Clare Wescott, a longtime aide, once described Davis as a “decisive and tough son-of-a-bitch disguised as a pussycat.”
Even as Britain and the United States were shifting to the ideological right with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Davis steadfastly steered his party towards the centre.
He was labelled a Red Tory, but insiders say his pragmatic approach to governing and willingness to adapt and give people what they wanted was the real secret of his success.
“Our party has sustained a flexible approach to the pragmatic problems and opportunities of government.”
His government stopped the Spadina Expressway through Toronto, limited rent increases, lowered the drinking age to 18 from 21, curbed wage hikes for broader public servants and, during the economic downturn of the early 1980s, launched a massive infrastructure program.
His policy choices sometimes created deep divisions within the party. There was bitter opposition among right-leaning Tories when Davis decided in 1981 to pour $650 million into buying a 25 per cent stake in U.S. oil company Suncor Inc.
Backing Pierre Trudeau in the face of initial opposition from most premiers, Davis used his backroom skills to convert many of his disgruntled counterparts. According to Roy Romanow, Davis’s ultimatum to Trudeau that he’d pull Ontario’s support unless Trudeau accepted the notwithstanding clause — a key concession to the provinces — was key in convincing the prime minister to accept the compromise.
Davis refused to call it an ultimatum, but a “point of view” and a “fact.” But the tenor of the meeting changed the next morning, he acknowledged.
Davis said he also played a role in putting the wheels in motion for the final first ministers’ conference.
“I said to the prime minister, ‘Prime Minister, you have to try once more.’ He kept saying it won’t happen. I said, ‘I can’t guarantee that we’ll go with you. I don’t know what Richard (Hatfield, then-premier of New Brunswick) will do,”’ he said.
“But I take some credit for, in fact, having that final conference. And it worked.”
But Davis’s support for another Pierre Trudeau-era proposal — the National Energy Program — angered his federal and western counterparts, and likely prevented him from seeking the federal Tory crown in 1983.
He may have been a staunch federalist, but Davis was no slave to Ottawa. He refused to heed both Trudeau’s and Brian Mulroney’s calls for Ontario to become officially bilingual, opting instead to extend French services gradually.
Rae tweeted Sunday that Davis was “an honourable opponent, a wise mentor and a great friend … Ontario and Canada had no finer public servant.”
In his 2009 interview with TVO, Davis said he wasn’t concerned with how 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. I can’t think of any.”