John Parmenter Robarts, Premier of Ontario, 1961-71

Gravesite commemoration of the Honourable John Parmenter Robarts, Premier of Ontario, 1961-71

Thomas H.B. Symons, C.C., O.Ont, FRSC, LL.D., D.Litt., D.U., D.Cn.L., FRGS, KSS – Chairman, Ontario Heritage Trust

I am pleased to be here today to bring greetings on behalf of the Board of the Ontario Heritage Trust, and to speak about the Honourable John P. Robarts.

The mandate of the Ontario Heritage Trust is to be the heritage trustee and steward for the heritage of the people of Ontario, to be a strong advocate and advisor for heritage conservation, to be a centre for heritage information and education, and to be a significant promoter of Ontario’s natural, built and cultural heritage.

John Robarts took a keen and helpful interest in the Trust in its early and formative years. As he said, its mandate embodied his deep belief that heritage matters.

In 2007, at the behest of then-MPP Jim Brownell, the Government of Ontario created the Premiers’ Gravesites Program to honour Ontario’s former premiers by marking their gravesites. The Ontario Heritage Trust was chosen to design and implement this special new program as an extension of its role in commemorating significant events, people and places in Ontario’s history.

The Trust launched the Premiers’ Gravesites Program at a memorable ceremony in November 2008 in St. Andrews West to commemorate the province’s first premier – the Honourable John Sandfield Macdonald. Since then, similar events have been held in St. George, Toronto, Brantford, Morrisburg, St. Thomas, Oshawa, Crown Hill, Guelph and Lindsay to commemorate 14 more premiers, each of whom left an important legacy through their leadership of the province.

Today, we are honoured to commemorate the Honourable John P. Robarts, Ontario’s 17th premier.

John Robarts was born on 11 January, 1917 in Banff, Alberta. Following the death of his mother, the family moved to Galt, Ontario in 1920, and then to London in 1930. On graduating from high school in London, John Robarts attended the University of Western Ontario. He enrolled at Osgoode Hall Law School in 1939 and became involved with the Conservative Club on campus.

During the Second World War, his studies were put on hold as he served overseas with the Royal Canadian Navy, seeing action in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Pacific. His experiences as a young naval officer during the war – with its emphasis on comradeship, discipline, courage and judgment – undoubtedly influenced his future approach to leadership and public life.

On his return to Canada, John Robarts resumed his studies at Osgoode Hall, graduating in 1947. He then returned to London and established the law practice, Robarts Betts McLennan and Flinn.

Robarts’ political career began at the municipal level when he ran for a seat on London’s city council in December 1950. He won London’s second ward by seven votes, which he gamely referred to as his landslide victory. Within a year, he had been more deeply bitten by the political bug and, in November 1951, he moved into provincial politics where he was elected MPP for his London riding. He was re-elected in June 1955 as member for the newly formed London North riding, and Premier Frost elevated him to cabinet as minister without portfolio late in 1958.

John Robarts was again re-elected in June 1959, and Leslie Frost appointed him Minister of Education in December of that year. When Mr. Frost made the decision to retire after a long and distinguished career in politics, John Robarts was chosen as his successor by the Conservative Party on 25 October, 1961. He was sworn in as premier of Ontario some two weeks later on 8 November.

There are, of course, many aspects of John Robarts’ career as premier on which I could focus this afternoon. These include: his strong leadership abilities and approach to governance, which earned him the moniker, Chairman of the Board; his respect for the democratic process, and his belief that a strong, vigorous opposition was essential to the proper functioning of a democracy – so much so that he provided additional money and resources to the opposition to support its research activities; his government’s creation of GO Transit – Canada’s first inter-regional transit system; the establishment of the Ontario Arts Council – the province’s major arts funding agency, intended to foster the creation, production and presentation of the arts for the benefit of all Ontarians; construction of the Ontario Science Centre as a centennial project, officially opened by Robarts on 27 September, 1969; and the work of the Ontario Heritage Trust, to which he gave so much helpful attention and support.

He played an active role in the founding of four new universities – Windsor, Trent, York and Laurentian – and in the expansion of others, as well as fostering, with his Minister of Education and eventual successor, the Honourable William Davis, the creation of a parallel community college system.

He recognized the need for an official flag for Ontario, which was unveiled on 14 April, 1965.

And, of course, throughout his time as leader, there was an amazing amount of growth and development within and across the province in which government and public policy certainly played a part.

But most of all, I would like to speak of the immense commitment and contribution of John Robarts to national unity and constitutional reform during his time as leader of the province, and to pay tribute to his thoughtful concern for French-language education and francophone rights in Ontario.

On the occasion of the centennial year convention of l’Association Canadienne des Educateurs de langue-française, who met in Ottawa on 24 August 1967, Robarts announced the intention of his government to provide, within the public school system of Ontario, secondary schools in which the language of instruction would be French. He declared that, “the potential contribution of Franco-Ontarians to our society is too great to allow them to dissipate their energies and abilities because they are denied adequate opportunities for furthering their education to the utmost of their abilities.” The legislation establishing French-language public elementary and secondary schools was passed by his government and took formal effect on 1 January, 1969.

During this period in Ontario, there was a growing recognition of the part played in the history and life of the province by the Franco-Ontarian community. Indeed, John Robarts acknowledged and supported this fact when he stated that, “Men and women of French origin have played a significant role in the development of Ontario for more than three centuries, beginning with the explorers and fur traders of New France. This role continues today through the Franco-Ontarian community … Its strength, vitality, accomplishments and potential are immense. Ontario – indeed all of Canada – is far the richer and stronger for the presence of these French-speaking residents.”

Momentous changes in the field of education were paralleled by the development of new programs and profoundly new attitudes in other areas of provincial public policy during the 1960s.

On 22 July, 1968, John Robarts moved in the Ontario legislature that, “henceforth, every member of this House may, as a matter of right in this House, address the House in either of the two official languages of Canada.”

In keeping with the spirit of this resolution and earlier developments, increasing attention was given by many provincial departments of government to providing “wherever feasible, bilingual public services so that the people of Ontario will be able to deal in either the English or the French languages with the various levels of government with which they come into contact.”

John Robarts’ recognition of the significance of French-language rights and education to Ontario’s history and identity was intimately related to his conception of national unity and his understanding of the essential role of Ontario in matters of constitutional reform. As Premier, he was greatly concerned “that the people of this province should appreciate their immense responsibility to the future of Canada.”

To this end, in the province’s speech from the throne in January 1965, Robarts announced the creation of the Ontario Advisory Committee on Confederation. Chaired by Dr. H. Ian Macdonald, and supported by the newly created Federal Provincial Affairs Secretariat, led by Charles Beer, the role of the committee was to advise the government and the province on the stance Ontario should take on constitutional and federal-provincial issues. The committee comprised scholars and experts from the fields of constitutional, cultural, economic, educational and legal affairs. Drawn from across the spectrum of political opinions, it was invited to examine, and to make proposals on, the full range of public issues of the day. There has perhaps never been anything like it in Canadian governmental affairs. It was a bold, unusual and, as it turned out, productive experiment.

The first meeting of the committee took place in March 1965. It met for two days each month, almost every month, for seven years until 1971 when it disbanded with the retirement of John Robarts. It was not uncommon for the Premier to join the committee for parts of their monthly meetings, where he would seek their opinion on many of the cultural, fiscal and constitutional issues impacting Ontario and Canada – which were then on his mind. Assisted and informed by such imaginative initiatives, Premier Robarts assumed a national leadership role in Canadian affairs.

Under his aegis, the Ontario Advisory Committee on Confederation and the Federal Provincial Affairs Secretariat also made a substantial contribution to the planning and preparations for the Confederation of Tomorrow Conference held in Toronto in 1967.

Chaired by Premier Robarts, and attended by nine of Canada’s 10 premiers, the Attorney General for British Columbia and two federal civil servants, the conference was very much an expression of John Robarts’ personal concern about the problems facing the country, and the need to address these problems. It was his view “that we were then approaching one of those rare junctures in our history where a candid discussion of the sources of our grave national tensions was necessary for our country to survive.”

The federal government had been disinclined to begin on the task of reviewing the state of confederation, despite signs that such a review was both necessary and urgent. In the absence of a federal lead in this matter, the province of Ontario led by John Robarts took the initiative by convening the Confederation of Tomorrow Conference and in so doing opened the dialogue that had to take place. Prodded by this conference and by the public interest it both expressed and aroused, the federal government then took up the initiative, as many provincial leaders had hoped it would do.

As premier of Ontario, John Robarts also went to great lengths to cultivate positive and productive relations with his Quebec counterparts, and enjoyed particularly good working relationships with both Premier Jean Lesage and his successor Daniel Johnson Sr.

On 20 October, 1965, Premiers Robarts and Lesage participated in the ceremonial laying of two cornerstones, one inscribed in French and one in English, for Champlain College at a young Trent University in Peterborough. At this event, the two premiers referred to their intention to enter into negotiations to begin a program of educational and cultural exchange between the two provinces, as proposed in a report prepared by Robarts’ Advisory Committee on Confederation.

The Ontario-Quebec Cultural, Educational and Technical Agreement was signed in June 1969 in Quebec City. It went beyond the initial concept of an educational and cultural exchange program to embody a declaration of mutual faith and respect between the two provinces. It not only provided for a broad range of exchanges and contacts, but also undertook to recognize the rights of the linguistic minority in each province.

John P. Robarts stepped down as premier in 1971 and his successor, the Honourable William G. Davis, was sworn in on 1 March that year. Even after his time as premier, John Robarts’ commitment to national unity and constitutional reform remained strong. He served as the co-chair of the Pépin-Robarts Task Force on Canadian Unity from 1977 until the commission’s report in 1979.

Shortly prior to his appointment as co-chair of the task force, Robarts made these remarks at a speech in Toronto:

“We must remember always our deep and strong ties to Quebec which are based in history and understanding. We must never forget our responsibilities to the rest of Canada and we must, above all, drive pettiness and smallness of purpose from our minds in these days of not inconsiderable stress.”

Reflecting on John Robarts’ political career in this way, I am reminded of just how much he contributed to the cause of national unity, to the evolution of human rights, to our educational and cultural resources, and to the broader growth and development of this province. I count myself privileged, as do many others, to have known him and to have worked with him.

We are honoured to be here today to commemorate officially, on behalf of all Ontarians, the Honourable John Parmenter Robarts and to celebrate the dedication and service to the people of this province of this great Canadian statesman.

Thank you.