Nfld. & Labrador

Paul Davis: first cop in Canadian history to lead a province

Premiers in this country have come from many different walks of life, most commonly from the business and legal community.

Police officers rarely have success in politics, says political scientist

Political scientists appear near certain that Topsail MHA Paul Davis is the first policeman in Canadian political history to become premier of a province. Davis was sworn in as the province's 12th premier late last month. (CBC)

Premiers in this country have come from many different walks of life, most commonly from the business and legal community.

There have also been teachers, social workers, farmers, the occasional physician, and even journalists.

Prior to Paul Davis being sworn in as Newfoundland and Labrador's 12th premier on Sept. 26, has a police officer ever reached the highest political office at the provincial level in Canada?

While no one is willing to say with absolute certainty, it's just about a sure bet that Davis is the first person to do so.

"I'd love to be corrected, but I'm 98.5 per cent confident he is the only policeman to ever serve as premier," said Jared Wesley, an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Alberta.

Limited information

Wesley is principal investigator with the Comparative Provincial Election Project, which is studying the quality of democracy at the provincial level.

He said it's a certainty that no politician with a policing background has served as a Canadian premier dating back to 1965.

And before that, he noted, civil servants in most jurisdictions in Canada were ineligible to run for public office.

He's unwilling to say definitively because, unlike Canadian prime ministers, the database of information available on premiers is far from complete.

He hopes that initiatives like the Comparative Provincial Election Project will change that.

"The study of provincial politics in Canada is undergoing a renaissance," said Wesley. "We should have firmer answers to questions like that in the coming years."

Police and politics

Chris Dunn, a professor of political science at Memorial University, said Davis has done something many other police officers have tried, and failed, to do — find success in the political arena.

"It could be that people with a police background aren't particularly adept at dealing with the wider range of public opinion, and when they get into office, they haven't been all that successful," Dunn said.

He made specific reference to Julian Fantino, the federal Minister of Veterans Affairs Canada, describing the minister’s performance at “problematic.”

Prior to his election to Parliament, Fantino served almost 40 years in law enforcement, including as chief of the Toronto Police Service.

It could be that people with a police background aren't particularly adept at dealing with the wider range of public opinion, and when they get into office, they haven't been all that successful.- Chris Dunn

Fantino has made headlines for his testy dealings with veterans, including a controversial confrontation with former soldiers over the closure of regional offices.

And Davis is not the first media relations officer with the RNC to take a run at politics.

In 1999, Paula Buckle ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate in the district of Waterford Valley, but lost by 1,200 votes to PC Harvey Hodder.

Dunn explained that politics has a special draw for many, but some professions, especially law and business, have had much more success at "propelling their adherents into political office."

Media spotlight

So how was Davis able to climb the rungs of power into the premier's chair and make history as the first police officer to do so?

Davis joined the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary in 1985, policing in Corner Brook and St. John’s. He worked in a variety of specialties, including the criminal investigation division.

By all accounts, he was good at his job, and was once named Crime Stoppers Police Officer of the Year. He also received an exemplary service medal.

But his life wasn’t solely committed to policing.

In 2001, he took the unusual step of entering municipal politics while still serving as an active duty policeman, and served two terms as deputy mayor of the Town of Conception Bay South.

He was also named the town’s citizen of the year.

There were times when Davis had to withdraw from some debates because of a perceived conflict.

But it was his final role with the RNC that propelled him into the provincial spotlight.

A household name

In 2006, then Const. Davis became the RNC’s media relations officer, and spent a great deal of time speaking into microphones and cameras, filtering out information about whatever case or policing issue that might be in the spotlight on any given day.

He became the MHA for Topsail after handily winning a 2010 byelection, and ended his career as a lawman.

Davis was easily re-elected in the 2011 provincial general election, despite not being able to campaign because he was undergoing cancer treatments for non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

He later returned to active politics, and served in several cabinet posts prior to entering the race this past summer to replace interim premier Tom Marshall.

He emerged as leader of the Progressive Conservatives and premier-designate after winning a contentious three-way race with fellow Tories Steve Kent and John Ottenheimer in early September.

His media profile was an asset, much as it was for many other political figures, including Bonavista-Gander-Grand Falls-Windsor MP Scott Simms.

Prior to his election a decade ago, Simms delivered the weather forecast nationally on the Weather Network.

Seamus O'Regan, who hosted CTV's Canada AM for 10 years, is also making a foray into politics, and hopes to represent the Liberal Party in the riding of St. John's South-Mount Pearl in the 2015 federal general election.

He will look to unseat another former journalist and media personality, NDP MP Ryan Cleary.

When asked recently if he was aware of his status as the first cop-turned-premier, Davis said he wasn’t.

"Thanks for sharing that," Davis quipped.

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.