A Few Thoughts on the Life and Legacy of Jack Layton

As a rule, I don’t blog about daily events. Things that seem important in the heat of the moment so often fade and blur with the healing balms of time and distance, and I want these posts to have longevity and relevance beyond the moments of creation. I doubt I’m violating that principle now: The world is a little dimmer and darker than it was yesterday, and I suspect a void has been created in Canadian public discourse that will never be truly filled.

This morning shortly before 9 a.m. I read on Twitter that Jack Layton had passed away. I felt like a stone had hit me between the eyes. I’ve spent the last twelve hours in a daze, reading obituaries and an outpouring of grief from Canadians across the political spectrum. Friends and foes alike, no one can ignore the dull thud of sad fact being committed to unchangeable history. Canada lost a giant today, a lion cut down in his prime after an incredible life-long story of struggle and hard work and perseverance.

I ache that Pierre Berton died almost seven years ago: Jack was his kind of character; Berton’s unwritten words of off-hand admiration –the wry twist on a matter-of-fact retelling of the improbable-but-true– would have formed a lasting tribute worthy of commemorating that remarkable breed of Canadian politician, neither boring nor crazy nor insincere.

I appreciate that many of my readers are not Canadian, so perhaps I should take a moment to give a little context: When people say that all politicians are crooks and cheats and liars who will say or do anything to get elected, somewhere deep inside of you exists a belief that there are exceptions, even polar opposites to that statement. The Honourable Jack Layton was that sterling example of what you always hoped a politican would be, could be, should be. Jack really was a dedicated public servant. He really did work incredibly hard to make things better. I didn’t agree with his entire party platform –even members of his caucus often quibbled with some of his decisions– but no one ever said he wasn’t the genuine article. No one ever said he was in it for himself. He wore his heart on a sleeve rolled-up to allow for serious effort, and he did his best to make friends and neighbours and total strangers happier through a combination of optimism, seeking the middle ground, and never letting a lesser politician get a superior quotation in the media.

Thousands of people better qualified than I have spent today talking about his life and his politics and his contribution to Canadian history. I have little to add to that, except to say that I met Jack somewhere between a dozen and a score of times, and I was always impressed that he really did care. I spent three semesters going to school in his riding, and I lived there for a year and a half some years later, at least in part because I admired him as a man and as a representative of the people: He never missed an opportunity to participate in the things that mattered to his constituents, and he never played politics with the things that shouldn’t matter but political handlers agonize over.

The first time I met him he was wearing one of those hand-knit sweaters that even Annie Liebovitz couldn’t make look flattering. A little starstruck, I complimented the woolen wonder for lack of anything better to say, and without missing a beat he said, “Well, I knew it would be cold in here.” I remember reading once that shortly after becoming leader of the NDP someone in the party ran a survey to see whether voters liked his mustache. When he found out, he called over a media scrum and said something to the effect of, “The only person who gets an opinion about my mustache is my wife, and she likes it!”

He was a straight-shooter, and when he shook your hand and made small-talk, you really had the sense that in that minute or two he cared about whatever you had to say. The only politician I ever gave my email to was Jack. Again, I’m not a party member. He was that good.

It occurs to me I keep calling him Jack. I’ve shaken Stephen Harper’s hand. I’ve met Bob Rae half a dozen times or more. I admire them both in their way, but I wouldn’t dream of calling them by their first name, let alone the familiar diminutive of John Gilbert Layton, the man the majority of Canadians would have liked to have a beer with and perhaps see as Prime Minister one day –whether they liked his politics or not.

When Jack announced he was taking a leave of absence –when he looked so drawn and thin and weary– I strongly suspected it would come to this. Maybe not in four weeks, but I worried I would never hear from him again. When Jack had prostrate cancer he said so and wore a blue tie, and he fought the good fight and he beat that damned disease into the dust; then he campaigned across the second-largest country in the world with a strut and swagger only embellished by a cane. This ‘new cancer’ was never labelled, and I’m sure that was a mercy: Jack knew he was going to go, and he didn’t want his name attached to a fatal prognosis in the mind of other Canadians suffering the same dreaded illness. I don’t know if he died of lymphoma or liver cancer or lung cancer, and I hope we never learn what finally laid him low. Fighting cancer is a life and death struggle, and Jack made the conscious decision to throw himself on the grenade and keep his death sentence a private matter, even when you could see it written on his face, hear the quaver in his voice.

I’ve already begged off on recounting Jack’s career in favour of people who will do a better job of it, but I want to take a moment to chastise those who have already tried to frame how the zeitgeist will remember him. Jack will not be the ‘Great What If’ of Canadian politics: Yes, Jack pulled the NDP from near-irrelevancy into the Official Opposition, and four years from now he might have become Prime Minister. Yes, Jack’s personality won seats in Quebec for placeholder candidates whose prospects are now in supreme doubt without his charisma to drive the party into the next election. Yes, decades of public service seemed to be building towards a hard-earned moment where the supreme power of a majority might come to rest in the hands of a man who once said, “Can most people really tell the difference between a socialist democrat and a democratic socialist?” What would politics in the western hemisphere have looked like if someone really made an equal distribution of prosperity work?

I refuse to leave the legacy of Jack Layton as a mental exercise inflicted on undergraduate political science students. I categorically reject the notion that Jack Layton’s contributions to Canadian culture, history, and political discourse will be a question mark.

Jack Layton will be remembered among the titans of Canadian Politics. He was a MacDonald, a Laurier, a Douglas, a Bourassa, a Broadbent, a Trudeau, a Chretien. Most of all, he was a Layton. I want to leave you with two things that sum up the man as I understand him. The first is a bit of fun, for he was a man who could tell a joke and enjoy one without worrying that someone would judge him:

The second is the letter he left to us when he knew his time had come. It is a letter full of hope and purpose, and when historians remember Jack Layton in the years and decades to come, I cannot imagine their prose seeking a wide audience without containing some portion of this piece of inspiration given voice:

August 20, 2011

Toronto, Ontario

Dear Friends,

Tens of thousands of Canadians have written to me in recent weeks to wish me well. I want to thank each and every one of you for your thoughtful, inspiring and often beautiful notes, cards and gifts. Your spirit and love have lit up my home, my spirit, and my determination.

Unfortunately my treatment has not worked out as I hoped. So I am giving this letter to my partner Olivia to share with you in the circumstance in which I cannot continue.

I recommend that Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmel continue her work as our interim leader until a permanent successor is elected.

I recommend the party hold a leadership vote as early as possible in the New Year, on approximately the same timelines as in 2003, so that our new leader has ample time to reconsolidate our team, renew our party and our program, and move forward towards the next election.

A few additional thoughts:

To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live their lives, I say this: please don’t be discouraged that my own journey hasn’t gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.

To the members of my party: we’ve done remarkable things together in the past eight years. It has been a privilege to lead the New Democratic Party and I am most grateful for your confidence, your support, and the endless hours of volunteer commitment you have devoted to our cause. There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause. But that cause is much bigger than any one leader. Answer them by recommitting with energy and determination to our work. Remember our proud history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind. Let’s continue to move forward. Let’s demonstrate in everything we do in the four years before us that we are ready to serve our beloved Canada as its next government.

To the members of our parliamentary caucus: I have been privileged to work with each and every one of you. Our caucus meetings were always the highlight of my week. It has been my role to ask a great deal from you. And now I am going to do so again. Canadians will be closely watching you in the months to come. Colleagues, I know you will make the tens of thousands of members of our party proud of you by demonstrating the same seamless teamwork and solidarity that has earned us the confidence of millions of Canadians in the recent election.

To my fellow Quebecers: On May 2nd, you made an historic decision. You decided that the way to replace Canada’s Conservative federal government with something better was by working together in partnership with progressive-minded Canadians across the country. You made the right decision then; it is still the right decision today; and it will be the right decision right through to the next election, when we will succeed, together. You have elected a superb team of New Democrats to Parliament. They are going to be doing remarkable things in the years to come to make this country better for us all.

To young Canadians: All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada. Young people have been a great source of inspiration for me. I have met and talked with so many of you about your dreams, your frustrations, and your ideas for change. More and more, you are engaging in politics because you want to change things for the better. Many of you have placed your trust in our party. As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.

And finally, to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

All my very best,

Jack Layton

– – –

My thoughts are with Jack’s family and friends. In all the times I met him, I don’t believe I ever saw Jack without his partner Olivia or someone else close to him by his side. Far beyond mere duty, there was always joy in their expressions, true comfort and content in their gestures and behaviour to one another. They were all truly happy together, and I know his loss is the kind of blow that would bring even the strongest to their knees. Canada has lost a hero, but those who counted themselves kith and kin have lost a great man who they had hoped to love and enjoy for many years beyond this sad day. Both are grievous hurts, and the best way to honour the loss is to take his final messages to heart:

“Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair.”

“Let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic, and we’ll change the world.”

“There are great challenges before you. I believe in you.”

“You roll up your sleeves. You discuss. You negotiate.”

“Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.”

“We can look after each other better than we do today.”

Thank you, Jack. Rest in peace, and may flights of angels sing you to your rest.

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