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R. Jeanette Martin
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R. Jeanette Martin
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R. Jeanette Martin
Jack Layton's death feels so cry-out-loud tragic because he was still brimming with energy and hope when he lost the chance to serve as a beloved, statesmanlike social democratic leader of Canada's official opposition.
That would have been the second revolution Jack sowed in one lifetime.
Happily, he lived to take a big bite out of the early fruits of the first one - the urban social revolution that developed so organically over the last 30 years that few understood it as the game-changer it was, or recognized the figure with the bicycle, moustache and huge grin as its pre-eminent leader.
Comparisons between medicare founder Tommy Douglas, cherished as a pillar of social compassion, and Jack Layton are apt because Jack helped build the matching landmark of Canadian identity. His fingerprints are on new levels of human solidarity flowering in municipal governments across the land, thanks to his bringing social movements and NGOs into the civic sphere. That can be dated to the moment he threw his hat in the ring for Toronto city council in 1982.
To grasp the scope of this 30-year quiet revolution, we need only recall two things about the era before Jack came onto the municipal scene.
First, Toronto renters, as non-property-owners, didn't get to vote locally until the 60s. That's one marker of pre-1980s cities as bastions of a pre-democratic age. This is why the city of Toronto is still formally known as the Corporation of Toronto, why owners of local businesses still get to cast a vote as property owners even if they don't live in the city, why tenants rarely know how much municipal tax is folded into their rent and consequently how much city policies determine their well-being.
The other marker of the old-style city was the standard fare on the municipal agenda: parks, potholes, police, building codes, land use and the like. Changing the rules didn't come easily. The fledgling city reform politics of the 1960s and 70s were focused on high-rises and freeways. Indeed, Layton's literature for his first council bid in 1982 (which Joell Vanderwagen and I wrote) harped on high-rises and developers.
Aside from the force of his personality, Jack made a splash because he ran as a New Democrat, out to introduce the same partisan and parti pris politics linked to the big social and economic issues of the day to the city "sandbox," as it was often called.
Jack had a head start, since he came to council already an expert in the new urban politics, thanks to radio programs he did with Ryerson prof Myer Siemiatycki in 1979.
According to Siemiatycki, Jack already saw that "the city was where the big issues would play out, where power and powerlessness lived close by, and above all where people could organize to resolve issues of social exclusion and the environment."
Within three years, he won the board of health chair, which put him at the head of the table on smoking in public spaces, AIDS, violence against women, poverty, hunger and homelessness - all of which he tackled with a universal public health mandate and city responsibility.
Jack pushed food to the fore in 1991 when he and close friend and colleague Dan Leckie orchestrated the founding of Toronto's Food Policy Council. (I later managed the Council from 2000 to 2010).
This was a "uniquely Laytonian-Leckian-Torontonian innovation" mixing expert and experimental citizen engagement with municipal resources, recalls Debbie Field of FoodShare, another mainstay of the transformative government-community collaboration of the 1980s.
Just as Jack's White Ribbon Campaign of the early 1990s, enlisting male support for an end to violence against women, has spread to 160 countries, his food policy councils now exist in 150 jurisdictions.
While taking on such responsibilities, he taught himself to be graceful rather than brash - less the style of 1960s academically trained radicals and more the style of NGOs working in the trenches and needing more resources and partnerships.
When 1997 mayoralty candidate Mel Lastman described homelessness as a downtown problem a few days before a homeless woman died of cold in Lastman's own North York, the media chased Jack for an angry, sizzling-hot put-down. Instead, Jack said Lastman was simply guilty of voicing stereotypes shared by millions of well-meaning citizens, and we all needed to learn about this new problem together.
As mayor, Lastman supported him on the need for more affordable social housing and even appointed Jack to chair the newly amalgamated city's Environmental Task Force.
I served on that body with Jack, who often joked that our job was to get the city to adopt my green economics manual, Get A Life! Our report, supported unanimously by council, promoted a major expansion of civic responsibilities that linked city well-being with green economics and social equity. (This and similar documents expressed the new consensus on core services that politicians and consultants with pre-1980s mindsets are challenging today.)
And later, as leader of the NDP, he showed the same focus on practical options and great grace.
In his deathbed message, he asked people to "be loving, hopeful and optimistic." In his own life, he mastered these singular qualities as architect of Canada's urban public health, food security, human rights and ecological revolution.
We can never know what he might have accomplished in national politics. But we will honour and build on his legacy to the level of government closest to the people.