The Inside Agenda Blog

One Legend Remembers Another

by Steve Paikin Friday March 9, 2012

More than a decade ago, I wrote a book about Ontario's 17th premier, John P. Robarts. I found the juxtaposition of his brilliant public life and his tragic private life to be a compelling story.

When I went looking for Robarts's final resting place, it took  me 45 minutes to find the actual gravesite. I found this incredible. How could one of the most successful premiers in Ontario history not have anything marking his gravesite?

The fact is, there was nothing. And I thought that was wrong.

So I will admit to some delight that the Ontario Heritage Trust has created the Premiers' Gravesites Program. For the past few years, the trust has been holding ceremonies, recognizing the achievements of our late premiers, and unveiling plaques and flags that will now mark their gravesites.

I had the honour of emceeing the service for Harry Nixon (premier in 1943), whose son Robert Nixon was Ontario Liberal Leader four times, and who was Ontario Treasurer from 1985-90 as well.

I told the folks at the trust, if you need an emcee for the Robarts ceremony, I'd be up for that too, given my interest in the man.

They took me up on the offer and on March 1, 2012, some long time friends and family of the former premier gathered at St. James' Cathedral in downtown Toronto to take care of some long overdue business: the unveiling the plaque that will soon be installed beside Robarts's gravesite at Parliament and Bloor.

Yes, there were some special guests there:

* David Peterson, Ontario's "other" premier from  London, who idolized Robarts while growing up in the city within a forest.

* Stephen Lewis, Canada's former United Nations Ambassador, but also, for this gathering, Ontario NDP Leader during much of Robarts's time as premier.

* Darcy McKeough, the former treasurer from Chatham, who got his first cabinet job from Robarts and today is the "keeper of the flame," hosting an annual luncheon in Robarts's memory.

* 90-year-old Gordon Carton, whose first election as a Toronto PC MPP in Armourdale was in 1963, Robarts's first majority government win.

* Roy McMurtry, one of just two Ontarians who was both chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ontario and attorney-general.

* Andrea Robarts, John's niece, and the closest surviving blood relative of the former premier. Andrea spoke lovingly of her uncle, and fought to hold back tears recalling that the last time But the star of the day's events was Robarts's successor as premier, William Davis.

Andrea Robarts, the former premier's niece. (photo courtesy Ontario Heritage Trust, by David Lee)

Davis, now 82, did something I've never seen him do before, and I've seen him speak many times. In trying to tell the audience how much impact Robarts had on his life, Davis spoke about the death of his first wife Helen, who died of cancer when she was just 30 years old. The Davises had four children at the time, and the youngest never even got to know his mother.

Davis is an extremely private person. To speak of this, in public, was unprecedented. But he told me ahead of time he felt he needed to talk about Helen's death to show just how remarkable Robarts had been to him at the time.

Robarts was minister of education when he became premier in 1961. However, he had his eye on Davis, who was a rising star at the time, having just been elected two years previously. Robarts kept the education portfolio even after becoming premier and told Davis that once his life was under control, they'd talk again.

Less than a year later, Robarts offered Davis the job and he went on to become, by most accounts, the best education minister Ontario ever had.

Robarts's successor, William Davis  (photo courtesy Ontario Heritage Trust, by David Lee)

Davis never forgot how the premier looked out for him during that time of crisis.

Davis's "eulogy" of Robarts lasted just over 20 minutes. The whole thing is worth seeing (the video is below). The comments about Helen's death are at the 5:30 mark. The deeply troubling questions about whether Robarts's friends did everything they could to help him recover from his stroke (he never did, which eventually led to his suicide) are further along at the 20:00 mark.

It is a uniquely introspective Davis on tape, one we have never seen before and may never again.

Unveiling the plaque: From left to right: The Very Reverend Douglas A. Stoute (rector of St. James' Cathedral), William Davis, Andrea Robarts, and Ontario Heritage Trust chair Thomas Symons.  (Photo courtesy of Ontario Heritage Trust, by David Lee).

This is the plaque which will be erected beside John Robarts's headstone at the cemetery at Parliament and Bloor in Toronto.

William Davis, flanked on the left by Stephen Lewis, and on the right by Robarts's deputy minister of finance, Ian Macdonald.

From left to right: Stephen Lewis, William Davis, Ian Macdonald, Darcy McKeough, and the emcee.

The honoured guests unveil the new plaque for John Robarts's final resting place.

The most introspective and emotional speech I've ever seen William Davis give.

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