Jack Layton’s legacy looms large amid current election

A decade after the former NDP leader's death, it's not hard to imagine how his message of optimism might have changed Canada’s politics had he lived

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      It’s hard not to look at the growing polarization of our politics in Canada and think of how different things might have been if Jack Layton were still alive.

      August 22 marked the 10th anniversary of the former federal NDP leader’s death. A Layton Legacy project has been launched to commemorate the occasion. Current NDP leader Jagmeet Singh took time out from campaigning to pay his respects in Toronto. Layton’s memory lives on. 

      Who could forget that awful summer 10 years ago when it was announced that Layton had succumbed to an unspecified cancer? He had taken a leave from his post only a month after taking up his rightful place as the official leader of the opposition following the NDP’s historic 2011 election showing. And so we’ll never know how Layton may have changed Canada’s politics had he lived. 

      The outpouring was immediate. Supporters flocked to Nathan Phillips Square to mourn the loss and leave messages scrawled in chalk on the concrete. Canadians had never seen anything like it for any political figure.

      While Layton was the leader of the NDP and proud of his Quebec roots—he was born in Hudson, Quebec—his political career was shaped in Toronto, first as a student activist at York University fighting the War Measures Act and later as a Toronto city councillor for two decades. 

      It was at that time that Layton, along with lifelong partner Olivia Chow, sowed a quiet revolution in local politics. 

      They did it with their contagious enthusiasm and doing what few politicians had done before them—bring the politics of social movements and NGOs into the civic square. Affordable housing, education, foreign aid, and public transit were only some of Layton’s many political passions. Climate change was another.

      Layton was often cast as a “radical” by his opponents for his more charged views. For example, he was derided as “Taliban Jack” by his opponents for daring to suggest a detente with the Islamists over the war in Afghanistan. How silly his critics look now amid last week’s collapse of the U.S.-backed regime in Afghanistan.

      Layton’s political genius was his ability to see past partisanship. Some of that came from his upbringing—Layton was the son of PC MP Robert Layton. But his politics were always progressive—and compassionate.

      As former NOW Magazine publisher Michael Hollett wrote in his appreciation following Layton’s death, “Jack was never afraid of telling us we can be better than we are, not hectoring, but appealing to what’s good in all of us—even his opponents.”

      He was a driving force behind the Liberal, Bloc, and NDP coalition to bring down a Harper government that had become arrogant and self-serving. An election would ultimately be called. Layton rode his coalition efforts to electoral success in 2011, carrying the NDP to its highest seat total from 36 to 103 seats.

      Canadians had seen how Layton soldiered on, cane in hand, throughout the election of the preceding month. But no one knew then that he only had a few months left to live.

      A decade after the Orange wave, Canadians find themselves more divided than ever and in the midst of another election. This time the stakes are even higher with a global pandemic forming the backdrop of the current vote. 

      Layton’s final message in his letter to Canadians was of love, hope and optimism. It continues to resonate a decade later as the need for climate action, reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and the challenges of building a post-pandemic recovery looms larger than ever.

      The country grieves a hero

      Jack Layton 1950-2011

      Leave it to the late, beloved leader of the official opposition, Jack Layton, to still be thinking of others, of you and me, of Canadians young and old, especially the young, as he stared down death in his last 48 hours on earth.

      In what will go down in history as one of the most remarkable pieces of political writing ever, Jack’s death-bed letter urges a more decent and generous Canada where everybody has a chance and no one is institutionally left out.

      He lived and breathed public service until he could breathe no more. And he did it sometimes loudly, sometimes behind the scenes, but always with grace and dignity.

      Jack was never afraid of telling us we can be better than we are, not hectoring, but appealing to what’s good in all of us—even his opponents.

      He may have worn his left-wing politics on his often rolled-up sleeve, but he was adept at bridge-building and non-partisanship. His ability to work with apparent foes on city and metro council as well as in community organizations throughout his career are great examples of this.

      It meant that Jack got things done, including leading his New Democratic party to unimagined electoral heights in the last election, while mortally ill and physically hobbled.

      When the old-school parties realized the NDP was about to break through in this election, they mustered attack ads against him and leaked negative stories to the compliant press. Jack’s telling response was to say, “I’m attacking poverty, cuts in health care, not people.” He refused to be drawn into the mudslinging, and a nation embraced him for it.

      We on the left are often operating from a minority position, on the outside trying to battle our way in. That means that for all our savoured victories, we have to learn how to deal with plenty of defeats. And this was something Jack was especially good at it seems he lost almost as many elections, campaigns and votes as he won. But he was never defeated, just delayed, and the essential truth he believed in was never diminished. His perseverance was astounding, and the ever-present smile under his trademark moustache was rarely absent. A loss simply meant there was more work to be done, not that the battle was over or the idea unworthy.

      Jack was audacious enough to believe that the NDP could ultimately take power and that he would become prime minister, and I truly believe he would have if the fates had allowed it. He was never afraid to think big, and his energy and enthusiasm could bring all of us—even a nation—along with him.

      I was on my way to my son’s hockey game in February 2008, soon after Canada had seemingly elected another Harper minority government even though a majority had voted for progressive parties. My cell rang it was Jack. He unspooled an outrageous but inspiring plan to form a coalition government. I was stunned, but a jolt of adrenalin shot through me. We had a chance to work for a government better than the one we had apparently just been handed.

      And for a little while the impossible seemed possible, as it often did around Jack. People tried to paint him as a separatist, a revolutionary, an opportunist, but none of it stuck. And as we all would see, while delayed, he was not defeated, and ultimately almost succeeded in wrenching the reins of power from the disempowerers.

      Election night in May 2011 was a remarkable moment, and I was fortunate enough to briefly join Jack and his family in their hotel suite to watch the stunning results, and later to hear the magnificent speech he delivered in the Toronto Convention Centre. I wanted to, and still want to, live in the Canada he envisioned. It is unbelievable to think the dynamic man who spoke so passionately and eloquently that night would be taken from us little more than 100 days later.

      The next night Jack was out with his beloved Olivia Chow, not resting on his laurels but supporting good friend Stephen Lewis’s Hope Rising Dinner and Benefit to fight AIDS in Africa at the Sony Centre.

      Jack was on fire, of course delighted at what the future represented, electrified by the opportunities for engagement with the Canadian people. He had already had a conference call that day with his supersized caucus filled with kids and Quebeckers, among others, and he was beaming. He was also thrilled at the number of artists and musicians in his new gang, and couldn’t wait to get going.

      “People say we should get more young people involved in politics. Well, why not as Members of Parliament?” he said, laughing heartily. Why not, Jack?

      I will cherish having been part of the crowd of thousands that night who rose to our feet in a spontaneous ovation when Jack and Olivia entered. His smile lit up the darkened hall, and he waved his cane like a wand, or maybe as a staff of blessing for us all.

      Stephen Lewis, himself a magnificent orator, will read the eulogy for his friend at Jack’s state funeral Saturday (August 27) at Roy Thomson Hall at 2 p.m. I’m sure the irony of a magnificent socialist being eulogized in a hall named after one of Canada’s more notorious capitalists would amuse Jack. And I’m confident that in honouring Jack, Lewis will embrace one of Jack’s last wishes that this moment be a celebration, not one of despair.

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

      As heartbroken as so many of us are, he would want us to honour him by carrying on his work, not collapsing in defeat and hopelessness. We don’t honour Jack by saying he’s irreplaceable or believing those who say there is no party without him. We do it by determining that he has helped start something unstoppable.

      It was never about Jack to Jack it was about a movement larger than any man or woman. We must carry his ideas and dreams forward, and especially the gracious and loving way he pursued them. Like Jack, let us show Canada a committed but caring approach to change, with respect for all, no matter what the odds.

      We do that, as a great and dearly missed Canadian said to us this week, “and we’ll change the world.”

      Okay, Jack, it’s a deal.