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This past April 17 Ontario education minister Stephen Lecce tabled Bill 98, the Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act, 2023, in the Legislative Assembly.

As neatly summarized by Mike Crawley at CBC News, the Ford government is embarking on “what it calls a transformation of Ontario’s school system … pushing a back-to-basics agenda and giving the education minister more power.”

The Preamble to Bill 98 itself is similarly instructive: “The Government is committed to re-focusing Ontario’s education system on student achievement, prioritizing hands-on learning and skills development in reading, writing and math. Legislative changes are needed to advance a vision for Ontario’s kindergarten to grade 12 education system … preparing students …for the jobs of the future.”

There are no doubt some immediate problems. In Ontario today (as elsewhere) there often seems an understandable weariness in the public education system. An instant online reaction to Bill 98 from Education Action Toronto was grimly headlined “The Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act: crushing what’s broken.”

Many of the Ford government’s many critics (if not its ironclad legislative majority) will urge that some new back-to-basics policy — rigorously enforced by a provincial ministry deeply rooted in the Mowat Block, just east of Queen’s Park — is unlikely to prepare students for the real jobs of the future at all seriously.

We seem to live right now in an unprecedented age of remote workstations, fading big city downtowns, and Artificial Intelligence (and at least a declared end of COVID-19).

It is suddenly a strange new world. Trying to transform Ontario’s school system with back to basics and a stronger education minister can just seem out of touch and out of date.

Whatever else, the new Ontario Bill 98 strategy of 2023 is almost the opposite of the still legendary Hall-Dennis “Living and Learning” report, delivered to the Progressive Conservative education minister (and future premier) William Davis in 1968.

This still controversial document still stirs wider debate. As explained by Wikipedia: “The Hall-Dennis Report … called for broad reforms to Ontario education to empower teachers and the larger community and to put students’ needs and dignity at the centre of education.”

Some would say the depths of the Hall-Dennis educational philosophy were never seriously put into practice. But the report can probably claim credit for a later 20th century broadening of an earlier much more narrowly focused Ontario education system.

From the start, “Hall-Dennis” was treated cautiously by education officials. In 1969 the Toronto Star complained that the “Hall-Dennis report, published in 1968, proposed radical changes in Ontario schools. Little has been heard of it lately.” Wikipedia today nonetheless urges that “multiple attempts were made to implement” Hall-Dennis in the 1970s.

The document has continued to figure in the more recent past. In November 2011 Peter H. Hennessy at the EdCan Network was complaining: “The Dream World of the 1968 Hall-Dennis Living and Learning Report is alive and well in the story of transforming public education.”

In January 2018 Paul W. Bennett at Schoolhouse Consulting was contemplating “The Ontario Hall-Dennis Report, Fifty Years On: Why Did the 1968 Report Create Waves?.” In July 2021 McGill-Queen’s published a book by the education historian Josh Cole, called Hall-Dennis and the Road to Utopia: Education and Modernity in Ontario.

According to reviewer Rose Fine-Meyer, Josh Cole’s book sees one side of the Hall-Dennis vision as an argument that school was in principle and should become in practice no longer “a place of confinement but instead a place of enjoyment.”

Yet Cole also argues that this side of the vision was finally just “a veneer of openness and did not represent the real substance of the report, which was to maintain conservative libertarian positions on individualism and citizenship.”

From here it is only a short journey to wondering if the 1968 Hall-Dennis report and its various later trajectories might actually be more relevant to the challenging new age of the 2020s, 2030s, and 2040s than the Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act of 2023.

Whatever else (again), Ontario’s Bill 98 today is not something that the Bill Davis PC s would have contemplated in the 1970s and 1980s.

There are sides to the Ford government that have more in common with, say, Mike Pence Republicans in the USA (see the former governor’s Indiana education website, for example), than with the real Ontario Progressive Conservative dynasty, from 1943 to 1985.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Public sector unions, especially connected with education, have been intermittent thorns in the sides of all of Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic governments of Ontario for the past several decades.

In late November 2022 the Ford government’s standing up while also conceding to the Canadian Union of Public Employees, acting on behalf of striking non-teaching education workers, may finally win decisive support from parents too long haunted by children out of school.

Yet the province’s tentative deal with CUPE  (still to be ratified by education workers) does raise questions about just where the Ford government is going in its second term.

Is the current incarnation of the Ford Nation PC Party really “building a stronger province  … just like Bill Davis did so many years ago” — as finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy urged in his recent Economic Outlook and Fiscal Review speech?

Or does the Ford government still have all the wrong basic instincts to seriously cover itself in the mantle of the William Davis Progressive Conservatives, 1971–1985?

On the side of the angels, 11 days after it was passed Premier Ford did repeal Bill 28. It had imposed a contract on striking CUPE education workers, banned  them from further striking, and then invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution Act, 1982, lest anyone claim Bill 28 violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The likes of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed alarm at the Ford government’s almost casual invoking of the notwithstanding clause in Bill 28. Opinion polls like the one published by Abacus Data on November 6 may have influenced the premier’s decision to repeal as well.

In response to the question “Ultimately, who do you blame the most for schools being closed due to the education worker strike,” 38% of the Abacus Ontario respondents said “Education Workers” and 62% said “Provincial Government.”

This Abacus poll also captures the Ford government’s democratic dilemma in a deeper sense. The 38% of Ontario respondents  who blamed Education Workers for closed schools is not much different from the less than 41% of the province-wide popular vote the Ford PC s won in this past June’s election.

With now four parties in a first-past-the-post electoral system, this clear minority of the popular vote was enough to give the PC s a two-thirds majority of the seats in the Legislative Assembly — in the lowest voter turnout election in Ontario since 1867!

Meanwhile, in the fall of 2022 the 62% in the Abacus poll who blamed the Provincial Government  for closed schools is not much different from the more than 59% who voted against the Ford government this past June 2.

The William Davis Progressive Conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s — or even the long Progressive Conservative dynasty from 1943 to 1985 — may at least have advice to offer here.

Like the Ford Ontario PCs of the 21st century, the historic PC dynasty never quite won a majority of the province-wide popular vote. The average over the 12 elections from 1943 to 1981 was 43%

But the PC dynasts remembered  that the majority of the people of Ontario regularly voted against them. They stayed in office for 42 years by skillfully exploiting the traditional electoral system in a three-party legislature — and by keeping an eye on the real majority of the electorate.

Bill Davis and his peers similarly knew that over the longer term it is unwise to get too rough with your opponents when the majority of the people vote for them.

Whatever else, it is not easy to see much of the Premier Davis who stopped the Spadina Expressway in 1971 in the Ford Nation Ontario PCs a half century later.

The initial design of Bill 28 in the dispute between the Ford government and CUPE was a glaring example of what Bill Davis would resolutely avoid.

On the more complex sides of the dispute — beyond dismal worker wages — this past summer the Financial Accountability Office did report reductions in Ontario education spending.

The broader history of Ford Nation budgets is similarly intriguing. In the government’s first budget for 2019–20 the “Health Sector” accounted for 38.9% of Total Expense, and the “Education Sector” for 18.2%. In the budget for 2022–23 the Health Sector accounts for only 37.8% and the Education Sector only 16.3%.

There are no doubt a few possible deeper meanings for such raw statistics. Yet in any of them it is hard to see much that the former 1960s Minister of Education William Davis, who helped pioneer Ontario’s present-day health and education sectors, would welcome with open arms.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Bill Davis, the 18th Premier of Ontario, passed away in his Brampton home on Aug. 8. He was 92 years old.

The tributes came pouring in almost immediately. Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats and others expressed an element of sadness and disappointment. Whether they agreed or disagreed with his ideas and policies was trivial at that particular moment. Rather, they felt the enormous loss of a Canadian politician of a time gone by who transcended the modern ideological divide and carried himself in a very different manner.

As it happens, Davis’s political career almost ended before it ever began.

His first political run was in the old provincial riding of Peel in 1959. It was a historically safe seat for the Progressive Conservatives. Thomas Laird Kennedy, who had briefly been Ontario’s 15th premier, had held it for 37 of the past 40 years. It should have been a walk in the park for the 29-year-old lawyer to keep Peel in the Conservative family.

Unfortunately, this election was held just after Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s controversial decision to cancel the Avro Arrow program. Many Canadians were furious with the PM and his political brand. They decided to punish politicians running under the federal and provincial PC banner by parking their votes elsewhere. Davis’s Peel riding was one of them. The rookie politician had to fight, scratch and claw his way to victory by a mere 1,203 votes.

That’s the closest Davis came to ever losing an election.

He earned the respect of his colleagues and quickly moved up the party ranks. Premier John Robarts appointed him the Minister of Education in 1962, and added the additional post of Minister of University Affairs two years later. He oversaw the establishment of new post-secondary institutions, including Brock University and Trent University. He developed Ontario’s community college system, and launched the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and TVOntario.

Davis was elected Ontario PC leader on Feb. 12, 1971 in the old Maple Leaf Gardens. Similar to his first election victory, it was a close result. He edged out Allan Lawrence by a razor-thin 44 votes on the fourth ballot.

Why was he almost defeated? Davis was a Red Tory, or left-leaning Conservative, which appealed to the party establishment. Lawrence was closer to a Blue Tory, or right-leaning Conservative, and drew heavily from like-minded delegates. Ontario PC MPPs mostly leaned to the Red Tory side and supported Davis, which political observers believe was the deciding factor.

Davis wisely realized he had to build a team of rivals a la former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. He kept the nucleus of his winning team, and brought in members of Lawrence’s team such as Hugh Segal and Norm Atkins. This started off the process of building the body politic, or brain trust, known as the “Big Blue Machine.”

In spite of its name, Davis ran a Red Tory-like government from 1971-1985. For every provincial sales tax reduction, statist policies like rent control popped up. He created more publicly funded layers by introducing several regional governments. He flip-flopped on public funding for Catholic schools. He unnecessarily purchased 25 percent of public energy utility Suncor. He gave out plenty of patronage appointments. And, much like he did as Education Minister, he spent taxpayer dollars like they were going out of style.

Here’s the fascinating thing. For all of his obvious imperfections, he was still extremely popular when he announced his retirement in Oct. 1984. His rivals were fundamentally aware of this. As Bob Rae once told TV host Steve Paikin, “Had he run, he’d have wiped the floor with both [David] Peterson and me.” That’s a future Liberal Premier (Peterson) and NDP Premier (Rae) contained in one sentence.

Indeed, Davis’s life and career transcended modern politics. He believed in the tradition of building bridges with political rivals from all sides of the aisle, including his own. He wasn’t an ideologue, and preferred to let ideas and opinions evolve more naturally. He was open to discussing intriguing proposals, no matter the source. He was warm, friendly and had a good sense of humour. He remained a loyal Conservative, playing a role in the 2003 Canadian Alliance-PC merger and supporting politicians like former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the late Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Toronto Mayor John Tory and Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown.

He was also intelligent, compassionate and likeable. Whether he was making a fundraising speech, talking to a person on the street, lightly chastising an opposition MPP or championing the rights of those with disabilities, he did it with grace, charm and humility. You could disagree with his politics, but he wasn’t a disagreeable sort. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

I was fortunate enough to have met Davis on several occasions. He was pleasant and affable, and enjoyed speaking about politics and current events. We were different types of Conservatives, but we always reached common ground on every issue we tackled.

That’s something our political discourse has lost in recent years.

Most of us realize the modern political environment has transformed. The politics of old are gone for good. But if we could ever find a way to retrieve the important element of civil discourse, even just a little, then Bill Davis’s giant legacy in Canadian politics could be cemented for future generations. RIP.

Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.