Bill Davis: A Biography


413 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
ISBN 0-458-99130-9





Reviewed by Richard Wilbur

Randall White is the author of Voice of Region: On the Long Journey to
Senate Reform in Canada, Too Good to Be True: Toronto in the 1920s, and
Global Spin: Probing the Globalization Debate.


This is a thick book about an important political figure and era, and the skilled way Hoy moves through the mountain of material indicates that here is the most informed observer of the Davis years. His lengthy interviews with Davis (mostly one long one as he was about to retire), plus others with senior advisors, suggest that the author was on a first-name basis and only needed confirmation of details of events he had covered over two decades. Despite this implied close relationship, Hoy remains caustically objective, adding his barbed comments or single phrases to tell us he wasn’t being taken in by some biased explanation. In this portrait, Davis comes across as a decent, honest, ultra-conservative yet competitive leader who usually had too much on his plate and who relied too heavily on polls and selected advisors.

With the exception of Darcy McKeough and Roy McMurtry, Davis seems to have had no strong ministers, and those who might have been he often ignored. His callous firing of Douglas Wiseman was, in Hoy’s view, “not a shining example of representative government in action.”

This biography overwhelms us with details, some so extensive they seem to have been taken verbatim from Hoy’s reporting notes. Some of the larger issues (such as the Spadina Expressway, the burgeoning ethnic population of the Toronto area, the “oil wars,” women’s issues), get their own chapters; the separate schools question gets two. And each time, we are taken through Davis’s electorial victories and near defeats.

Part One, containing eleven chapters, provides an overview of Davis, from his privileged WASP years as a Brampton Gothic through to his resignation. Then back we go again through the same time frame with a distinct chapter focus, as if Davis’s dealings with Levesque did not affect his energy talks with Lougheed or his constitutional manoeuvres with federal Liberals. A more conventional format, starting with Brampton and going through chapter by chapter to 1984 would have revealed the interplay of these forces as Davis tried to balance one against the other or pushed the most controversial aside until after the election results. The true test of a political master is his or her skill at keeping several balls in the air simultaneously: Davis was obviously very good at this. He also became a superb platform performer, finding the right words for the right audience at the right time.

Even though Hoy provides us with front-row seats on a re-run of recent events in Ontario’s history and even though we learn which Davis advisor said what to whom, the account is too detailed. Despite Hoy’s witty style, this reader’s interest could not be sustained; it flagged long before page 406. On the other hand, for political science and public administration buffs, this study provides many explanations on how the “Big Blue Machine,” a phrase coined by Hoy, really worked.


Hoy, Claire, “Bill Davis: A Biography,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024,