Robarts 'a man for his time'

NOEL GALLAGHER

, Last Updated: 4:32 PM ET

It was 40 years ago this month, that John P. Robarts launched his illustrious 10-year stint as premier of Ontario.

That eventful period in the province's history and the London-bred political leader who dominated it are recalled in The Chairman of the Board: The Life and Death of John Robarts, a documentary that airs tomorrow on TVO's Studio 2.

"I wanted to give Ontarians a sense of both sides of this incredible public figure, the happy public visionary that helped make this province what it is today and the unhappy, personal figure," says Steve Paikin, writer, producer and narrator of the 60-minute retrospective.

"The man's spirit changed the province, but sadly, he suffered a physical and emotional demise he certainly didn't deserve and ended tragically."

The film biography traces Robarts' roots as a University of Western Ontario student, lawyer and London MPP who rose in the ranks of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party to become premier on Nov. 8, 1961.

"I'd rather govern than be governed and I'd rather stir than be stirred," said Robarts, whose milestone achievements in the areas of education, health care, public transit and relations with Quebec were punctuated by his two landslide election victories in 1963 and 1967.

"Robarts was a man for his time and encapsulated the era," explains Paikin. "He was both progressive and conservative on a whole host of political issues and was really the first of Ontario's modern urban premiers."

The documentary features interviews with its subject's colleagues and friends -- among them former Ontario premiers William Davis and London's David Peterson, former Liberal leader Robert Nixon -- Robarts' second wife/widow Katherine and his daughter Robin.

"People were only too happy to talk to us," says Paikin. "They had this feeling that John Robarts' story hasn't really been told."

His confidantes reveal some of the less-known details of Robarts' life away from the public spotlight: The unpublicized late-night partying; his troubled first marriage; the 1977 suicide death of his adopted son Tim, 21; and serious health problems that led the depressed 65-year-old Robarts to take his own life on Oct. 18, 1982.

"For people my age (41) with no first-hand knowledge of Robarts, this documentary will be a revelation, while for those over 50 it'll be a wonderfully nostalgic trip down memory lane," notes Paikin.

The Studio 2 host admits he "stumbled" onto the idea of doing the documentary two years ago after reading a biography of the former premier. At the time, Paikin was doing research for his recently published book, The Life: The Seductive Call of Politics.

"In this country we don't celebrate our heroes very much and John Robarts was a genuine legend," he adds. "And, not to sound like a shameless plug for ourselves, but profiling a great Ontarian like him is part of TVO's mandate . . . It's certainly not the kind of thing the commercial networks are interested in doing."


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