Although the current Ontario Liberal government is credited with ushering in the potentially transformative Greenbelt Act, politicians of all stripes gathered yesterday to honour former premier Bill Davis, a long-time Conservative, with helping plant its seeds over 35 years ago.

A generation of Ontario leaders who actively promote the spirit of conservation joined a new generation of leaders at Toronto Botanical Gardens to honour Davis as he received the 2007 Friend of the Greenbelt Award.

The prize, awarded by the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, is in recognition of his government’s “bold action” in 1973 to protect the Niagara Escarpment shortly after Davis became premier. His actions set the precedent for Ontario growth planning, foundation chair Sandy Houston said. It helped create a province with an intact rich natural landscape supporting a green environment, farming, and rural life alongside its most heavily populated centres.
Still known as “Brampton Billy” where he sat as an MPP and still lives, Davis was also responsible for cancelling the proposed Spadina Expressway forever changing the face of the City of Toronto. He also developed a greenbelt bill that was never passed, lawyer David Donnelly (Gilbert’s LLP) told NRU. “Can you imagine what this province would look like if that greenbelt had been approved all those years ago?” Donnelly said.
Former Lieutenant Governor Hal Jackman, a close friend of Davis, chaired the event, along with co-chairs former Liberal premier David Peterson, Stephen Lewis Foundation chair of Stephen Lewis, who was leader of the NDP during Davis’ tenure, Ivey Foundation vicechair Suzanne Ivey Cook and McMichael Canadian Art Collection chair Noreen Taylor.
“It is remarkable to think that the model for protecting natural heritage features, prime agricultural land and limiting urban sprawl was devised in the 1970s, but it took an entire generation to repeat this success,” Houston said. Calling him the “grandfather of the greenbelt,” Jackman told the audience of more than 220 people that Davis is known for protecting the environment in two significant ways: protecting the Niagara Escarpment and “giving up smoking those awful cigars.”

Among those attending to honour Davis were a number of individuals from Ontario politics of that era including former cabinet ministers Darcy McKeough and Bob Elgie, who now chairs the Greenbelt Council.After a typically witty speech, Davis received his award from Juno winner Sarah Harmer, who won the first Friend of the Greenbelt Award. She sang her song, Escarpment Blues. Other supporters in attendance included Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment’s new executive director Leslie Adams, Greenbelt Defence executive director Rick Smith, who along with Donnelly was recently named a “Green Giant” in Toronto Life, Glenn Miller (Canadian Urban Institute), Oakville mayor Rob Burton,  onservative leader John Tory, education minister Kathleen Wynne, health minister George Smitherman, York Region Peter Van Loan and tourism minister Jim Bradley.

Five historic plaques were unveiled to recognize Davis’ accomplishment, which will be installed along the Niagara  scarpment at Niagara Falls, Hamilton, Caledon, Owen Sound and in the Bruce Peninsula.