Tuesday, August 30, 2011

We'll Change The World: Remembering Jack Layton: 1950-2011

Sometimes the thrill of victory can turn into the agony of defeat in a remarkably short period of time. In the case of Jack Layton, the thrill of victory turned into the agony of grief in only a handful of months.

For my American or International friends who are reading this, Jack Layton, 61, was a city councillor for 20 years in the city of Toronto, and then he made the switch to federal politics in Canada, becoming leader of the leftist New Democratic Party in 2003. Each successive election that Layton fought, he increased the number of NDP seats in parliament. But what happened in this year's general election shocked almost everyone. Layton led the party to an unprecedented 103 seats, making the NDP the Official Opposition party for the first time in Canadian history. His greatest success came in the francophone province of Quebec, where a whopping 59 MP's were elected (an increase of 58).

From what I've read, as a city councillor Jack Layton could be a pain in the ass. He seemed to be involved in everything and making a stink about many different issues. But people listened; he made them listen. Jack stood up for AIDS sufferers in the early days of the disease, he stood up for environmental issues, for gay rights, and for homelessness. Former mayor Mel Lastman said that he wanted to simply throw homeless people in jail, but Jack changed his mind and pushed for affordable housing.

Jack came from a long line of politicians. His father was a cabinet minister in Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's administration, and his great, great uncle was a father of Canadian confederation. However, this does not mean that everything Jack touched politically turned to gold. He ran for mayor of Toronto twice, and lost. He ran to be an NDP member of Parliament twice, and lost. But in 2003, something changed and with the support of influential former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, Layton became the new leader of the New Democratic Party.

As previously stated, Layton consistently made gains for his party in each election. Then in 2010 he announced that he had prostate cancer and vowed to beat it just as his father had. His battle seemed to be going well, and then he cracked his hip and had to have surgery to repair it. Shortly after a federal election was called, and Layton faced having to travel from coast to coast, setting out on a grueling election campaign.

And it seemed nothing could keep Jack down. At the beginning of the 2011 campaign there were many questions as to if Jack could withstand the rigours that awaited him, but he showed them. There was Jack, flying from stop to stop to stop, first using a brace to help him walk, which was eventually replaced by a cane. This cane became a symbol of strength and defiance as he began to shake it in the air in front of enthusiastic crowds.
As the election campaign went on, Jack seemed to be getting stronger and stronger. He performed excellently in the televised debates (for instance, questioning Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff's attendance record in Parliament by saying, “Where I come from, if you don't show up for work you don't get a promotion!”)

And then there was Quebec. As the separatist Bloc Quebecois party seemed to disintegrate in that province, and with voters not wanting to flock to either the Conservatives or the Liberals, Quebecers began to take a look at the NDP. Or more accurately, they started to fall in love with Jack. For years Layton had been trying to make inroads in Quebec, and when the time came in the election campaign, he visited the province frequently and endeared himself with his folksy French, and by pouring draft beer at a bar during a Montreal Canadiens playoff game while sporting one of their jerseys. The result was astounding, and the Quebec surge was the main contributor to Jack becoming the leader of the Official Opposition.

But mere weeks later, it became clear that something was wrong. Jack and his wife Olivia Chow (also a member of parliament) always attended the Toronto Pride Parade, and enthusiastically walked the route, shaking hands and conversing with the crowd. However, this year, they remained seated, being pulled in a rickshaw. Then in June at a garden party Layton hosted for the press, it was clear that he wasn't in good health, as he remained seated for almost the entire time.

The country was stunned at the end of July (the 25th) when Jack called a news conference. No one knew what it was about, though there had been rumblings. But Canadians were not prepared for this. Jack appeared, along with party president Brian Topp and his wife Olivia, and he was gaunt and his voice was raspy. He announced that he had been diagnosed with a second form of cancer and would temporarily step down as NDP leader to take care of his health. He vowed to return to parliament when it resumed mid-September. But it was clear to anyone who watched that news conference that Jack was in for the fight of his life. However, if anyone could beat cancer, it was Jack, who had always been known as a fighter.

But it was not to be. On August 22nd, less than a month after that news conference, Jack Layton passed away at his Toronto home, surrounded by family. Two days before his death, Jack gathered with his wife, chief of staff, and NDP president, and they compiled a farewell letter, speaking to young Canadians, Quebeckers, those fighting cancer, etc. He outlined his vision for the party, and concluded with this paragraph: “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.”

What followed was an outpouring of national emotion such as I've never seen. Spontaneous vigils sprouted up all over the country, from Vancouver to Montreal to Halifax, to here in my city of Kitchener, where local NDP candidates as well as a Conservative MP shared a few words in tribute to Jack. The most touching tribute occurred in the square in front of Toronto City Hall, where Jack began his political career. Hundreds of people covered the square with messages written in chalk, and they left flowers and hand-written letters. Others left cans of Orange Crush soda, in reference to the NDP colours as well as their historic breakthrough in Quebec.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was gracious in offering a state funeral to Jack's family. Traditionally, state funerals in Canada are reserved for prime ministers and governor generals, but at the PM's discretion, he or she can offer it to a distinguished Canadian. It was a wise move.

Jack's body lay in state on Parliament Hill for two days, and 14, 000 people filed past his casket to pay their respects. After this, he lay in repose at Toronto City Hall for another day and a half where thousands more payed their respects. On Saturday, August 27th, 2,500 people packed Roy Thomson Hall for Jack's celebration of life. Thousands of people watched the funeral in a nearby park and church, and various locations around the country. The service was part celebration of life and part political rally. There was a lot of music as well as readings from multiple faith traditions. Humanitarian and former NDP politician Stephen Lewis eulogized Layton by emphasizing that his farewell letter was not just about love, hope and optimism, but was a “manifesto for social democracy.” “He talks of social justice, health care, pensions, no one left behind, seniors, children, climate change, equality and again that defining phrase, "a more inclusive and generous Canada." All of that is entirely consistent with Jack's lifelong convictions.” Rev. Brent Hawkes emphasized Jack's wish that others take up the cause of making Canada and the world a better place.

There has been a lot of criticism and skepticism surrounding Jack's last letter as well as the outpouring of grief that we witnessed across the country. Some of this criticism came in the form of newspaper columns published mere hours after Jack's death, which I find to be despicable. Writers have suggested that Layton didn't even write the letter and that people were merely being emotional and jumping on the grief bandwagon. I don't buy either assertion.

Was Jack Layton a saint? No he was not. Was he Prime Minister of Canada? No he was not. Did he cure the common cold? Not that I know of. What Jack Layton represented to people, even those who would never vote for his party, was enthusiasm, optimism, and a commitment to making Canada a better place. Also, so many people are grieving for him because in him they finally saw a politician that they felt they could relate to, someone who looked out for the little guy. Others were supporters of the causes he fought for and promoted, and supporters of the party. One of the reasons I admire Jack is because during his time at Toronto City Council, he stood with AIDS sufferers as well as the homeless. He was also a tireless activist for the environment.

But perhaps the biggest impact Jack Layton had, even on his deathbed, was to inspire Canadians to simply do something to make their country and their world a better place to live in. If everyone would do their part, we can change the world, he said. He was always looking forward with optimism.

It could be a long, long time before Canadian politics sees as engaging of a leader as Jack Layton.