Jack Layton, RIP
~by Jonathan McLeod
It’s a surreal time in Canadian Politics. Usually, the summer presents us with few goings on, but, sadly, such is not the case this year. I don’t know if it has been much noticed in the U.S., but Jack Layton, who had been leader of the New Democratic Party and Leader of the Official Opposition, passed away on Monday. At the age of 61, Layton fell to cancer.
It was a surprise, but, perhaps, not a shock. His medical history was well-known, and at recent events, his appearance told the grave tale of his battle. Nonetheless, the public was not prepared for this. It has been a significant blow to the nation, and it seems clear that we did not fully understood just what Jack Layton meant to us.
To understand the significance of this man and his place in the Canadian zeitgeist, you’ll need a bit of a background of Canadian federal politics. For its entire history, the New Democratic Party (NDP) had been the little sibling of the major parties. It has had a strong voice, but has never been able to challenge the Liberals or the Conservatives (or the predecessors to the Conservatives) for any hold on power. With the rise of the Bloc Quebecois, the NDP often found itself in a battle for third place. Never had they formed government or even the Official Opposition. In recent minority governments, their voice grew stronger, but they didn’t look like true contenders.
Jack Layton, himself, did not always appear the dynamic national leader he would become. Jumping straight from Toronto city council to the leadership of the federal party, he needed to grow into the role. Slowly, his natural charisma and his earnest do-goodery emerged, and he began winning over many, myself (somewhat) included.
We had an election this past spring. In the extended run-up, it appeared that it would be a struggle between the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. Mr. Ignatieff was thought to be a viable opponent for Mr. Harper. An academic, a public intellectual, he was supposed to have the chops to take on the PM. As the campaign drew on, however, this didn’t materialize. Slowly (and eventually, not so slowly), we saw the rise of the NDP.
This party, which had a solid, if meagre, collection of seats in the House of Commons, looked for a breakthrough. And that breakthrough came in Quebec, a province that had never embraced the NDP (even if they had embraced similar policies to those espoused by the NDP). Some thought it was a fool’s errand for Layton to spend so much time and effort in what had always been an unwinnable province. Their slate of candidates was weak. The desire to run candidates in all of the country’s 308 ridings meant there were many who were candidates in name only (one such candidate was a student and bartender who missed the final stages of the campaign because she had a previously-booked trip to Vegas… she won).
Despite the odds, Layton pushed through, cane in hand (he was recovering from hip surgery), and as we neared the end of April, we saw the Orange Crush emerging. On May 2, the man who had recently defeated prostate cancer had defeated the Bloc and decimated the Liberals. As Leader of the Official Opposition, he would move into Stornaway with his wife and fellow MP, Olivia Chow. For four years, he would have the highest pulpit of any NDP leader.
That is how it should have went. After the election, Layton did take the charge of the opposition, leading them in a dramatic filibuster as they fought back-to-work legislation. The summer recess was delayed, and midnight sessions of Parliament ensued. Little did we know he was dying.
After Parliament broke for the summer, Mr. Layton took a leave from his role as leader of the NDP and the Opposition. He had a new undisclosed form of cancer, and that was the challenge that needed to be faced. He planned to return in the fall.
A few weeks back, we learned that he would not be attending the caucus meetings in September. There was some chatter about the significance of this, but no one was predicting his death. Really, it seemed like returning in September was always an optimistic timeline.
Optimism is a key word in Layton’s story. His optimism has been noted by many. Witnessing his rise in federal politics, you knew he felt that change for the better could happen. We could build a better Canada. Optimism became not only a defining feature of the man, but a defining feature of his departure.
Shortly after his death Monday morning, a letter was released. It was his goodbye. This letter to Canadians touched many. Just as his recent campaign re-invigorated many who had grown cynical of politics and engaged young voters like few have, his farewell touched people who never imagined they would be so moved by a politician. Yes, there were some who soullessly parsed every little word of what was, in places, a rather political message, but that is, mercifully, the exception.
Jack Layton currently lies in state five blocks from where I am writing this. On the lawn of Parliament Hill a vigil emerged. As the CBC’s Kady O’Malley noted, it’s just what we in Ottawa do. In Toronto, a beautiful tribute arose in Nathan Phillips Square, as people wrote messages to a man who had so recently been so full of life.
On Saturday, Layton will receive a state funeral, an unprecedented ceremony for an Opposition Leader. Nonetheless, it is a decision to which few are strongly objecting. Though we may not have known it four months ago, this man has touched the lives of many. He has inspired many. And he has carved a significant moment in the Canadian cultural experience.
The final words of his final letter have been scribbled on roads and the sides of buildings. They covered Facebook pages. They’ve been tweeted, quoted in blogs and printed in newspapers. This, his final message, is such a wonderful gift as he leaves this world.
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,
There is no way we could have known that his final words would touch us so. There is no way we could have known just how much we would miss him.