The country grieves a hero

Leave it to the late, beloved.


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 pm. 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.

michaelh@nowtoronto.com

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