Public life isn’t about yourself

When the phone rang I knew who.

When the phone rang I knew who was on the other end of the line. I’d been thinking about running federally for the NDP for several months but was still on the fence, and this call was from Jack – my first conversation with the leader.

By the time I hung up, I was in all the way. It wasn’t that Jack suggested I’d have an easy ride in fact, he was quite blunt. Almost nobody wins on the first kick at the can, he said. He told me he understood how difficult it is to make the leap into partisan politics, especially for artists, who are particularly independent-minded.

And he had a sense of humour about himself: “You’ve got to understand that you’ll have to deal with the moustache if you decide to do this,” he laughed.

But what sticks in my mind most from that short call was his take on entering public life. “It’s not about you it’s about respecting and serving the people you represent,” he said. This wasn’t spin from a veteran politico, but a statement about his core values as a human being.

Jack and Olivia were incredibly supportive of my campaign, as outside-the-box as it was. They popped in for many of our events – fundraisers, office opening parties, even my wedding party – even though he was battling prostate cancer and might just have flown in from encouraging a candidate somewhere else or need to catch the red-eye the next morning.

On a bracing day in February 2010, we mainstreeted along St. Clair, saying hello at cafés and small businesses. Two hours and four espressos later, Jack had delighted cashiers, business owners, seniors and hipsters alike. But I also saw the delight in his eyes the whole experience for him was enlivening, positive – and hopeful.

An hour before a fundraiser, I was standing outside the Dakota Tavern when I received a text from Jack, from his hospital bed where he was recovering from hip surgery: “I can call in via speaker phone on a BlackBerry and you can put it up to the microphone and I can say a few words to the folks,” he offered.

I marvelled at the utter dedication. I chuckled, too, because of the many things I learned from Jack – one of them to refrain from using my BlackBerry at events. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him use one at a gathering. I asked about it once, and he told me, “People have invited you into their lives. It is sacred space, and you have to give them all the attention and respect they deserve.”

Jack’s famed energy, his uptempo vibe and intense focus inspired me to work my ass off in Davenport. I saw how hard he was working and that he was doing it with such joy and grace despite the political knocks and the cancer.

It’s people’s understanding that Jack Layton gave himself to Canadians lock, stock and barrel for 30 years that underlies the intense outpouring of love, grief and sadness. He believed the country was worth it, worth the effort, the pain, the struggle, the fight.

Jack Layton believed in bringing out the best in all of us, not playing to our worst instincts. He believed in our capacity to make this a fair country. All with a twinkle in his eye, a jaunty gait – even with a cane – and easy laughter.

He told Canadians he wasn’t going to stop until the job was done. He was in it for keeps, all the way to the end – an end that was brutally quick and so shocking and utterly unfair that it feels, in this early, raw moment, like a hard punch in the gut.

And through the pain and anguish so many of us feel right now, I’ve got a hunch his spirit will continue to grow stronger, that more and more folks will believe we can do better, that grace and generosity trump anger and greed, and that, in Jack’s beautiful final words, love, hope and optimism – with huge dollops of Laytonian hard work – can change the world.

Andrew Cash is the Member of Parliament for Davenport.


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