Farewell, Jack Shehara W

The Monday that brought the news of Jack Layton’s death had the surreal feeling of days that we suspect will stick in our shared memory for a very long time. With the collective wind knocked out of so many stomachs in Canada, many sought instant confirmation in the social media sphere, perhaps in the faint hope that whatever text message or phone call that filled us in had somehow been a mistake. What soon followed, in the online and physical worlds, were emotional tributes that transcended political leanings and amazed through their passion and sheer number.

The genuine (despite comments made in that editorial by Christie Blatchford) and spontaneous nature of this outpouring, confirmed in chalk all over Nathan Phillips Square, at least gave the comfort that my feeling of deep loss was not unusual. Where the feeling was rooted though, and what Jack Layton had come to represent to me, warranted further reflection.

Jack Layton’s election as NDP leader roughly coincided with my first major engagement with Canadian politics, as a bewildered 11th grade student campaigning for the provincial NDP. Able only to recall a time when Jean Chrétien steamrolled competition with jokes about wetsuits and Shawinigan handshakes, there was something exciting about a mustachioed city councilor who spoke with conviction and played guitar, even if a politics teacher or family friend worried that he might be too camera-friendly.

Years later, during my last months of a political science degree at the University of Guelph, a low-key gathering for the riding’s federal NDP candidate was set to begin at the best pub downtown for decent beer. Vaguely aware of the event, and following a usual weeknight route, a group of glossy-eyed fourth years entered the pub and took a booth. Moments later, Mr. Layton himself walked past with a half-pint glass in hand.

“Hey Jack!”
“Hi guys!”

There was nothing remarkable about a party leader showing up to a local candidate’s pub night. But there was a strange comfort and familiarity that we all felt in the brief resulting interaction, as if calling him by anything other than his first name was ridiculous. Here was a politician as wily and crafty as any, but with social skills to go along with political astuteness, a combination that felt and remains so rare among our recent federal politicians. Looking back at the discussion that followed our own clinking of glasses with the NDP leader, I realize that he came to define, for me, a belief that progressive ideas need not be pushed to the margins of our national politics.

An increase of two million votes over the previous election, a near-tripling of seats in parliament, and a demolition of the traditional balance of power in Canadian party politics; the NDP’s achievements in the 2011 election still seem difficult to process. With the Liberal Party in shambles and the Bloc Québecois facing its deepest existential dilemma, Layton became (with the exception of Elizabeth May’s one-person Green Party caucus) the only opposition leader in the House of Commons. It was the moment for a skilled, passionate and courageous leader of the federal opposition to really stick it to the most partisan Prime Minister in Canadian history. Perhaps that’s why it was even harder to accept that now is the moment Jack Layton left us; on the heels of the unlikely and remarkable crowning achievement of a 30-year political career, and in the very moment that we as citizens needed him more than ever before.

Leading a list of candidates brimming with youth and inexperience, faced with the same archaic electoral system as ever, and leaning heavily on a cane, Layton helped accomplish one of the greatest electoral achievements yet. While still a fresh one, and with the overall results yet to be seen, he showed us that it could be done. He showed us how it was done.

Perhaps because of my age, or perhaps because of a Toronto upbringing, Jack Layton and his tremendous moustache embodied an optimism and idealism that I could only admire and strive towards, regardless of whether or not I agreed with his every political maneuver. Reading and re-reading the words of his final open letter, I discovered just how big the resulting void would be and what the man had meant to my own interaction with Canadian politics.

When he was asked the predictable questions about his surprisingly young Québec caucus, and their alarming lack of experience, Layton’s reply was this:

“I don’t share this notion that a young person is somehow not qualified.”

What better answer to hear from a 60-year-old veteran?

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