Steve Paikin

October 7, 2013 by Speakers' Spotlight

Paikin and the Premiers: Personal Reflections on a Half Century of Ontario Leaders

Few people know the modern-era premiers of Canada”s most populous province the way Steve Paikin does. He has covered Queen”s Park politics, discussed provincial issues from all perspectives with his TVO guests, and has interviewed the premiers one-on-one. His new book, Paikin and the Premiers, offers a rare, uniform perspective on John Robarts, Bill Davis, Frank Miller, David Peterson, Bob Rae, Mike Harris, Ernie Eves, Dalton McGuinty, and Kathleen Wynne. The book has just hit store shelves, and Speakers’ Spotlight is pleased to share an excerpt from this great work:


Books often come together in strange ways.

A few years ago, the former Progressive Conservative MP, now author and publisher, Patrick Boyer and I were swapping stories about our shared love of politics. During the course of that conversation, he pointed out something that hadn’t occurred to me.

Throughout my three decades in journalism, I’ve had the opportunity to interview all eight premiers of Ontario. And seven years ago I wrote a book about former premier John P. Robarts, who won his first election in 1963. Patrick wondered: did I realize I therefore had a connection with every Ontario premier of the past half century?

No, I hadn’t. But when you put it that way, I guess it’s true.

“You must have a ton of interviews with all of these premiers in the archives at TVO,” Patrick continued, referring to Ontario’s provincial public broadcaster, created by former premier William Davis more than forty years ago.

“Absolutely,” I replied.

“And with your knowledge of Robarts from the book you wrote, there’s half a century of insider knowledge about how these guys did what they did. There’s a book in there somewhere, Steve,” he said.

You are now holding in your hands the ultimate outcome of that con­versation. The more I thought about Patrick’s words, the more I realized, yes, through my privileged perch, first as a Queen’s Park reporter for CBC-TV, and then over twenty years hosting five different programs at TVO, I have indeed had the opportunity to get to know the last nine premiers of Ontario a little better than the average citizen. And as I look back on the transcripts of those interviews, I can’t help but think that they somewhat reflect that “first draft of history” journalists try to write. The key issues of the day are all there, providing a window into what Ontarians cared about, obsessed about, fretted about, and delighted in at the time.

So, in this book, you’ll find interviews I’ve done with:

• a man who became premier at the tender age of just forty-one, but who held on to the job longer than anyone else in the twentieth century: William Grenville Davis;

• the man who replaced him and sadly (for him) presided over the end of the forty-two-year-long Tory dynasty: Frank Stuart Miller;

• the man who became the first Liberal premier of Ontario in more than four decades: David Robert Peterson;

• the man who shocked the entire country by becoming Ontario’s first and so far only NDP premier: Robert Keith Rae (who would go on to surprise his former fellow New Democrats a decade and a half later by running for the leadership of the federal Liberals);

• the man who did what hadn’t been done in more than seven decades, by moving his party from third place to government in just one election: Michael Deane Harris;

• the man who helped Harris implement his Common Sense Revolution, then quit politics, only to come back by popu­lar demand and become the first Conservative premier to fail to win an election in seven decades: Ernest Larry Eves;

• the man who seemed hopelessly out of the race to lead his party, coming fourth on both the first and second ballots, but who somehow won on the fifth ballot and became the first Liberal premier in Ontario in 128 years to win three consecutive elections: Dalton James Patrick McGuinty, Jr.; and

  • the woman who broke two demographic barriers in one fell swoop in January 2013, and, as this book goes to press, has one of the most oppressive “to do” lists of any new premier ever: Kathleen O’Day Wynne.

As for the ninth premier, I was only a year old when John Parmenter Robarts became what was then called “prime minister of Ontario.” (His successor, William Davis, changed the title to “premier of Ontario,” figuring Canada only needed one prime minister at a time.) So not only did I never interview Robarts, I never even saw him.

Fortunately, a former TVO colleague of mine once hosted a remark­ably eclectic program called The Education of Mike McManus. Mike interviewed guests as varied as author Margaret Laurence, actor/director Warren Beatty, chicken king Colonel Harlan Sanders, and 1960s revolu­tionary Timothy Leary. And yes, he also interviewed John Robarts, long after Robarts left the premier’s office. So we’ll feature some of that interview in these pages.

Half a century of Ontario premiers: What did the successful ones have in common? Why did some of them fail to achieve their potential? Do Ontarians prefer their premiers to be moderate, bland, middle-of-the-roaders such as William Davis? Or fire-breathing revolutionaries such as Mike Harris? And why has none of them been able to do what Leslie Frost did five-and-a-half decades ago: win three consecutive majority governments? (Dalton McGuinty missed that achievement by just one seat in 2011.)

It’s a good bet that those of you reading this book have, at one time or another, cursed the names of all of the premiers in it. Particularly in an era of twenty-four-hour-a-day cable news, social media gone wild, and internet users who, shall we say, never quite graduated from finishing school, to be premier of Canada’s most populous province is to invite frequent and perpetual criticism, scorn, even hatred. One viewer even called me on a few occasions promising to kill Harris.

So it’s worth trying to understand more about these leaders, and to find out what makes them special — because they are special. Of the tens of millions of people who have lived in the province of Ontario since Confederation, only twenty-five have ever been able to bear the appella­tion, premier of Ontario.

This book is my take on the last nine, who have made Ontario’s past half century, as the song says, a place to stand and a place to grow.