The Hon. David Peterson
|20th Premier of Ontario|
June 26, 1985 - October 1, 1990
|Lieutenant Governor||John Black Aird|
|Member of Provincial Parliament|
September 18, 1975 - September 6, 1990
|Ontario Liberal Party Leader|
February 21, 1982 - September 6, 1990
|Leader of the Opposition in the Ontario Legislature|
February 21, 1982 - June 26, 1985
|Chancellor of the University of Toronto|
July 1, 2006 - June 30, 2012
David Robert Peterson
December 28, 1943
|Alma mater||University of Western Ontario|
University of Toronto Faculty of Law
David Robert Peterson, (born December 28, 1943) is a Canadian former politician. He was the 20th Premier of the Province of Ontario, Canada, from June 26, 1985 to October 1, 1990. He was the first Liberal premier of Ontario in 42 years.
Peterson was born in Toronto, Ontario, to Clarence Marwin Peterson (1913–2009) and Laura Marie Scott (1913–2015), and has two siblings, former MPP Tim Peterson and former MP Jim Peterson. His parents were both born in Saskatchewan. His father was born to Norwegian immigrant farmers who had previously homesteaded in North Dakota. Clarence Peterson joined the newly-formed Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, and was present at the conference where it adopted the Regina Manifesto. Looking for work during the Great Depression, he moved to Ontario and was living in Toronto in 1936 where he found a job as a salesman with Union Carbide which eventually took him to London, Ontario where he worked for the company for several years before establishing a wholesale electronics business, C.M. Peterson Co. Ltd, in 1944. He was elected to city council as an alderman in the early 1950s and joined the Ontario Liberal Party, running as its candidate in the 1955 Ontario general election in London North, losing to future premier John Robarts, and ran again as a federal Liberal candidate in 1963 in London.
David Peterson grew up in London and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Western Ontario in political science and philosophy and his law degree from the University of Toronto. He was called to the bar in 1969. He was made a Queen's Counsel in 1980 and later was appointed to the Queen's Privy Council for Canada in 1992 on advice from Brian Mulroney.
At the age of twenty-six, he became president of C.M. Peterson Company Limited, a wholesale electronics firm founded by his father. He holds four Honorary degrees including a doctor of laws from the University of Western Ontario and is a knight of the Order of the Legion of Honour of France and a member of the Order of La Pléiade. In 2009, he became a member of the Order of Ontario.
Peterson married actress Shelley Matthews in 1974 and they have since raised three children. He is the younger brother of Jim Peterson, formerly a federal Liberal MP and cabinet minister. Both his sister-in-law Deb Matthews and Tim Peterson, a third brother, were elected to the Ontario legislature in the 2003 provincial election while Deb Matthews was re-elected in 2007, 2011 and 2014.
Peterson was elected as the Liberal Member of Provincial Parliament for London Centre in the 1975 provincial election. Less than one year later, he campaigned for the leadership of the party following Robert Nixon's resignation. Despite his inexperience, Peterson nevertheless came within 45 votes of defeating Stuart Smith on the third and final ballot of a delegated convention held on January 25, 1976. Smith presented an image of an articulate intellectual who some delegates said reminded them of Pierre Trudeau while Peterson came across as similar to then Premier Bill Davis. Convention delegates also thought that Peterson, at 31 years old, was too young and his convention address which he later characterized as the "worst speech in modern political history" came across as stilted and over rehearsed.
The convention was held on February 21, 1982. This time his convention speech was better. Although not very inspiring, it was viewed as 'statesmanlike' and effective. He won on the second ballot defeating the more left-leaning Sheila Copps with 55% of the vote. In his acceptance speech Peterson said that he would move party to the 'vibrant middle, the radical centre', and stressed economic growth as a way to increase support for social services. Observers from the other parties felt he was trying to move the Liberal party more to the right, away from values that Smith promoted.
Peterson worked to pay off the party's debt from the 1981 election and accomplished that by the end of the year and was working on long-term debt. Peterson performed well as opposition leader and was popular in the press. The party started to use him as a label rather than 'Liberal' referring to 'David Peterson's Ontario'. A by-election loss to the NDP was attributed to dislike of Federal Liberals. In 1984, a Liberal backbencher, J. Earl McEwen crossed the floor to join the Tories. Polling in late 1984 showed Peterson's Liberals consistently trailing behind the Progressive Conservatives. Premier Davis still polled as the most popular leader.
Peterson's fortunes improved when Davis retired as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in early 1985. His successor, Frank Miller, took the party further to the right, and was unable to convince the electorate of his leadership abilities. Though Miller's Tories began the election in 1985 with a significant lead, Peterson's Liberals gradually increased their support throughout the campaign. To the surprise of many, Peterson won a narrow plurality of the popular vote. However, at the time rural areas were still slightly over represented in the Legislative Assembly. As a result, the Liberals won 48 seats, while the Progressive Conservatives 52 which was enough for a minority government.
Shortly after the election, NDP leader Bob Rae called Peterson and entered into negotiations. Rae also initiated talks with Premier Miller but the talks with the Liberals proved more fruitful. Rae and Peterson signed a "Liberal-NDP Accord" in which the NDP agreed to support a Liberal government in office for two years. The Liberals, in turn, agreed to implement some policies favoured by the NDP. Rae wanted to have a coalition with representation in cabinet but Peterson indicated that he would not accept a coalition.
The Liberals and NDP defeated Miller's government on June 18, 1985 on a motion of no confidence on the speech from the throne, and Peterson was sworn in as Premier of Ontario eight days later. Peterson's top three cabinet ministers were Robert Nixon as Treasurer, Sean Conway, and Ian Scott as Attorney General.
After the expiration of the Liberal-NDP Accord in 1987, the Liberals called another provincial election, and won the second-largest majority government in Ontario's history, taking 95 seats out of 130, at the expense of the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives who dropped to third place in the legislature.
Peterson's government introduced several pieces of progressive legislation. It eliminated "extra billing" by doctors, brought in pay equity provisions, and reformed the province's rent review and labour negotiation laws. His government also brought in pension reform, expanded housing construction, and resolved a long-standing provincial controversy by honouring the Davis Tories promise to extend full funding to Catholic secondary schools. Peterson was also a vocal opponent of free trade with the United States in 1988. His administration was less activist in its later years, though it still introduced progressive measures on environmental protection, eliminated health insurance premiums, and brought in no-fault automobile insurance for the province.
The Peterson administration also developed a reputation for fiscal prudence, under the management of Treasurer Robert Nixon. The Liberal government was able to introduce a balanced budget for 1989-90 following several years of deficit spending in Ontario, at a time when deficit spending was commonplace in most of North America.
Peterson remained personally popular during his time in power, and some spoke of him as a future Prime Minister of Canada. Peterson improved his public speaking abilities in the early 1980s, and projected the image of an active, charismatic figure when in office. Some believed his image was perfectly suited to the young, urban professional demographic of the 1980s.
Both Peterson and his government were still popular at the beginning of 1990. The end of his career in politics came suddenly, and was the result of several factors.
Peterson's majority government was regarded as a "juggernaut that became arrogant and didn't listen to its critics". As the PC and NDP opposition parties were weakened after the 1987 election, it fell to the media and other special interest groups (particularly teachers' unions and environmental groups who were criticizing the Ontario government at a level not seen with past administrations.
The first was Peterson's prominent role in creating and promoting the "Meech Lake" constitutional accord. While initially popular, this attempt at revising Canada's constitution proved extremely divisive in most of English-speaking Canada. Many believed that it gave too many concessions to Quebec, while others believed that it weakened the federal government's authority in relation to the provinces. Peterson's continued support for the accord, in the face of increased opposition, damaged his personal popularity in Ontario. The accord was not endorsed by Manitoba and Newfoundland, and did not pass.
The second reason for Peterson's downfall was the Patti Starr affair. Starr, a prominent Liberal fundraiser, was found to have improperly diverted money from a land development scheme and charitable organizations to the provincial Liberal Party. Several Liberal cabinet members were recipients of her largesse including Health Minister Elinor Caplan, Transportation Minister Ed Fulton and Revenue Minister Bernard Grandmaitre. She was eventually sentenced to six months' jail time. Although no-one in Peterson's administration was accused of criminal activity, the scandal eroded public confidence in the integrity of the government. Polls showed that more than half of respondents felt that Peterson had poorly handled the matter and 61% felt that it revealed widespread corruption in the government.
The third reason was the weakening North American economy. Productivity levels were falling throughout the United States and Canada during this period, and were likely worsened in Ontario and other jurisdictions by the recent passage of a Free Trade Accord involving the two countries. While there was little that Peterson, or any other Ontario Premier, could have done to prevent this downturn, it weakened his government's reputation for fiscal competence. (Indeed, the government's projected surplus budget for 1990-91 ultimately yielded a deficit of at least three billion dollars.) Peterson "was getting a ton of advice to call an early snap election after less than three years" and "pundits warned Peterson he certainly didn't want to call an election in 1991, in the middle of a deep recession".
Notwithstanding all of this, Peterson's Liberal Party still retained a comfortable lead over the Progressive Conservatives and NDP in mid-1990 public opinion polls, as their party leaders Mike Harris and Bob Rae, respectively, were not expected to be strong challengers. The PC Party was broke after the 1987 election, and anticipating an early election call they held their leadership contest in May 1990 with a membership vote instead of a delegated convention, they still struggled due to newly minted leader Harris's inexperience as well as an association with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's growing unpopularity. The NDP having never won an Ontario election and Official Opposition leader Bob Rae was considering retiring from the legislature after one more term. As a result, Peterson decided to call a snap election, less than three years into his mandate. This proved to be his greatest mistake.
Many voters saw the early election as a mark of arrogance, and a sign that Peterson's Liberals had become detached from the electorate. There was no defining issue behind the campaign, and many believed that Peterson was simply trying to win re-election before the economic downturn reached its worst phase. Some Liberal cabinet ministers, most notably Greg Sorbara and Jim Bradley, were strongly opposed to the early election call. Sean Conway, a member of Peterson's inner circle, would later acknowledge that most backbench MPPs also opposed the timing of the campaign.
At the time the writ was dropped, the Liberals stood at 50% support in the polls. Peterson's personal popularity rating based on his Meech Lake record was 54%. However, his luck turned immediately upon calling the election. One of the seminal moments in the campaign was at a press conference called to announce the forthcoming election. Peterson justified the early writ claiming "especially after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, Ontario faced 'profound changes in this country and the world' and that he needed to protect the province in the event of a national-unity crisis", while denying "that he was being an opportunist and trying to capitalize on polling results that put Liberal support at 50 per cent". It was soon interrupted by Greenpeace activist Gord Perks, who arrived with a briefcase handcuffed to his arm, with a tape recorder inside playing a pre-recorded list of broken Liberal environmental promises. Peterson sat in front of the room full of reporters, awkwardly silent and clearly uncomfortable.
Disappointed by high expectations as well as perceiving that the PC and NDP parties would not be strong opposition, groups representing various interests (such as teachers, doctors, and environmentalists), came out against Peterson on television, radio, in print, and at Liberal campaign events, despite the Liberals having worked cooperatively with these special interest groups prior to the election call. Protesters would follow the Premier throughout the campaign, and often received considerable media coverage. The media reported the election call as cynical, and the party appeared desperate when they unexpectedly proposed to cut the provincial sales tax halfway through the campaign. It did not help that the provincial election campaign was being run in the aftermath of the failed Meech Lake constitutional accord of Brian Mulroney's federal government, with which Peterson had significant media exposure in association with the other first ministers.
Peterson felt that the Liberals' fading poll numbers "reflected greater anxieties about the world and that the party had failed to successfully communicate his government's accomplishments"; by contrast the NDP's hastily assembled platform called "Agenda for People" managed to escape heavy scrutiny due to their underdog status. As the NDP gained momentum, the Liberals panicked as "candidates removed Peterson from their campaign materials" while Treasurer Robert Nixon proposed a cut to the sales tax. The Liberal campaign slogan shifted from "Effective leadership for a strong Ontario" to "Warning: An NDP government will be hazardous to your health." Toronto Sun columnist Michael Bennett summed up the divergent fortunes of the Liberals and NDP as campaign progressed, writing "As Peterson became more strident, Rae assumed an almost statesman-like attitude. He'd used up most of the venom early in the campaign. Now he didn't need it."
The campaign also took place at a time when the federal NDP was performing well in the polls. In the federal election two years earlier, the federal NDP won 43 seats, its highest seat count until the 2011 Canadian federal election. This trend carried over to the provincial level; the provincial NDP under Rae ran a strong campaign and saw its fortunes gradually increase as election day approached. Some voters believed that Peterson deserved to be reduced to a minority government, while others believed the NDP should be given a chance to govern.
On September 5, 1990, the NDP scored one of the greatest upsets in Canadian political history, taking 74 seats for a strong majority government. Due to the nature of the first-past-the-post system as well as numerous fringe parties contesting this election, one third of NDP seats were won with less than 40 per cent of the vote. While the NDP only outpolled the Liberals by a narrow six-point margin, they managed to unseat many Liberal incumbents in the Greater Toronto Area. The Liberal caucus was decimated as they plunged from 95 seats to 36, at the time their worst showing ever. The 59-seat loss surpassed the 48-seat loss in 1943 that began the Tories' long rule over the province. This was also the second-worst defeat for a governing party in Ontario.
Peterson lost his own seat, having been resoundingly defeated by NDP candidate Marion Boyd in London Centre by over 8,200 votes. The loss ended Peterson's political career. He announced his resignation as Liberal leader on the night of the election.
Peterson's 1990 snap election has been compared to Alberta Premier Jim Prentice's 2015 snap election, drawing numerous parallels in polling, mid-campaign policy reversals, the impact of the leaders' televised debate, and the resulting defeat of the incumbent government. Overall voters in their respective provinces "saw these two premiers as people who put the interests of his party ahead of the interests of the public. The decision to call an early election helped to reinforce this belief".
Peterson's ascent to power in 1985 was part of a trend in the improvement of Liberal Party fortunes in Canada. Prior to that Ontario election, the future of the Liberal Party looked bleak at both the federal and provincial level. The Liberals had not governed in any province since 1979. A year earlier, they had dropped from 135 seats to only 40 in the federal election. In some provinces, the Liberals had been completely wiped from both federal and provincial representation in the legislatures. Peterson's surprise victory is regarded by many as the start of the party's comeback.
Peterson's successor, Bob Rae, took power during one of the worst recessions since the 1930s, which contributed heavily to the NDP's decimation in 1995. Rae has since left the NDP and rejoined the Liberal Party.
Peterson has continued to organize and fund-raise for the federal and Ontario provincial Liberals. In May 2005, he played the central role in persuading Belinda Stronach, a federal Conservative MP, to cross the floor to the ruling Liberal Party, days before a crucial confidence motion on the federal budget of Paul Martin's Liberal minority government. The defection proved critical to the survival of Martin's government, with the final outcome of the budget vote 153-152 in favour of the government.
After Martin resigned the party leadership in the wake of the Liberal defeat in the 2006 election, Peterson planned to support former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna who chose ultimately not to run. Peterson then backed Michael Ignatieff, criticizing former political opponent Bob Rae's entry into the race due to the latter's record as provincial premier. Peterson insisted he did not hold a personal grudge against Rae.
Since 2003, Peterson has been contracted by the federal government to be its chief negotiator in talks with the government of the Northwest Territories and aboriginal leaders to transfer federal powers over lands and resources.
In September 2013, Peterson was appointed chair of the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games Organizing Committee. In 2015, he was sued for alleged sexual harassment of a 34-year-old female Pan Am games manager. Peterson denied any wrongdoing and the allegations have yet to be tested in court.
David Peterson was the founding chairman of the Toronto Raptors of the National Basketball Association, and was a member of Toronto's Olympics Bid Committee. Since leaving politics, he has been a professor at York University in Toronto, a senior partner and chairman of the Toronto law firm Cassels, Brock & Blackwell LLP and has been director or member of several charitable, cultural, and environmental organizations. He is or has been a member on several corporate boards, being particularly associated with Rogers Communications where he has been a director since 1991. In 2006, Peterson was named to the board of Shoppers Drug Mart at the time of the firm's acquisition by Loblaws. In his legal practice he provides international advice to a wide range of clients about public policy issues and government affairs in Canada.
In 1999, Peterson found himself at the centre of controversy due to his membership on the board of YBM Magnex, a firm which was discovered to have links to the Russian mafia. Peterson maintained that he was unaware of illegal activities at the company, and referred to the accusations against him as "guilt by association". A subsequent investigation by the Ontario Securities Commission found that Peterson's actions met "the legal test of due diligence", but expressed disappointment that he had not shown more leadership on the board.
A 2004 report from The Globe and Mail newspaper noted that Peterson was chastened by this experience, and had become "a cautious and more conscientious director" since that time. The same article further claimed that he has "no influence outside of Toronto".
On May 26, 2020, Peterson was appointed vice chair of the board of directors at the Toronto Star after the paper's parent company, TorStar Corporation, was acquired for CAD $52M by a group of Toronto investors known as NordStar Capital. In a statement published on NordStar's website, Peterson described the Star as "the voice for people who don't have a voice" and said that he was "delighted to be involved [and] ... very pleased to be part of this team."