Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Jack Layton - The Quintessential Canadian

In light of my recent commentaries on the politicians that trawl the American scene -- from the merely self-serving to the downright dangerous -- it is highly poignant to write now about Jack Layton.

There is a certain set of attributes that people generally ascribe to Canadians -- we are a peaceful, polite, generous and tolerant lot.  We value justice, equality, human rights and personal dignity.  We live in a vast, oversized and sparsely populated land of prairie, forests, mountains, lakes and widely scattered cities.  We are a polity of diversity and multi-culturism.  We are proud of our system of universal health care, and prouder still of our national hockey teams.

Mike Meyers is a famous Canadian export, and in that typically self-depracting Canadian fashion, Meyers characterized us this way,
"Canada is the essence of not being.  Not English, not American, it is the mathematical of not being.  And a subtle flavour.  We're more like celery as a flavour."
Jack Layton was not subtle as celery, but he was most definitely the embodiment of the attributes, values, polity and pride that typified Canada and Canadians.  Smiling Jack was upbeat and positive, driven and committed, consistent and constant.  He was a politician that loved politics, in the very best sense.  He connected with people and he cared deeply about people, and that's why they called him, Jack.

In his early political life, serving on Toronto's city council, Jack was a champion of urban issues such as homelessness and green buildings; he was among the first to recognize the issue of climate change; he was an early fighter for gay and lesbian rights, and he spearheaded Toronto's battle against AIDS.  As leader of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Jack helped put the needs of Canada's cities on the national agenda, pushing for more help to fix crumbling infrastructure and address social problems.  (See Marcus Gee's commentary in the Globe and Mail for more.)

As the national leader of the New Democratic Party, Jack remained true to the principles at his core.  His election miracle this past May is attributable, in part, to this constancy, and in part to his skillful organizing -- as Jeffrey Simpson wrote in today's Globe and Mail,
"Mr. Layton grew into the job.  He was comfortable in his own skin, and comfortable with the job.  He loved politics, day and night, and threw his considerable passion and energy into it, for which he was much admired by colleagues."
In his farewell to Canada, written just days before he passed, Jack urged us to be better,
"Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one -- a country of greater equality, justice and opportunity.  We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors.  We can offer better futures to our children.  We can do our part to save the world's environment.  We can restore our good name in the world."
These words are the real deal, from a politician who was immune to the affliction of ego.  At the moment of his greatest triumph, Jack Layton is gone.  And, sadly, we are left with what's left.

So my lament is for the loss of Jack Layton, and the terrible loss it is for Canada.  It will be difficult to be better without him.

Update:  The main post on Jack Layton was dedicated to the man.  This update will speak to the state of Canadian politics in the wake of his sad demise.

Let's start with a quote from Stephen Harper, as he crowed at this year's Calgary Stampede -- it annoyed me at the time, but the irritation has resurfaced with a vengeance now that Jack is gone,
"Conservative values are Canadian values.  Canadian values are conservative values.  They always were.  And Canadians are going back to the part that most closely reflects who they really are: The Conservative Party, which is Canada's party."
Well, this is a fabrication, charitably classified as full-of-himself rhetoric from a man known to be the consummate political ideologue.  The Conservative party has never been the party that reflects who Canadians really are; and Harper has yet to win even a simple majority of votes in three trips to the polls.  And then, today, as if by magic, in his column in the Globe and Mail, John Ibbitson says,
"A majority of Canadians did not, never do, vote Conservative."
This brings us back to Jack's farewell letter to Canadians.  It was an unprecedented political message, from a man who had achieved so much only to have it snatched away from him at the moment of success -- from him, but not the party and the movement for social change he and the NDP represent.  And this is the essence of his letter.  It asks Canadians to work with the NDP to do better than the narrow and self-centered view offered by the Conservatives.  This is why Jack said Canada can be better, a country of greater equality, justice and opportunity, one that shares its benefits more fairly, one that restores our good name in the world.  He said this because under the Conservative agenda of Stephen Harper, Canada is rushing headlong in the opposite direction.  The values that Stephen Harper espouse for Canada are not shared by the majority of Canadians, and this is why Jack wrote "working for change can actually bring about change".

The trouble is, as Ibbitson wrote yesterday, "now, no one stands in Harper's way".  As he also wrote,
"Jack Layton would have been the first person to calculated the political consequences of his passing, and those consequences are profound.  The most powerful voice championing a socially democratic future for Canada is stilled.  The one person to meld, or at least paper over, the implacable contradictions within the NDP caucus is no longer there to listen, cajole and, when needed, knock heads.  Every party opposing Stephen Harper's Conservative in the House of Commons is leaderless, affording him the kind of political space for action that few prime ministers, if any have enjoyed.  Someday, from somewhere, a voice will rise to challenge the Conservative hegemony.  It could have been Jack Layton, but now it must be someone else."
With all due care and deliberation, it needs to be someone and it needs to be soon.  Canada desperately needs a counterbalance to Stephen Harper, who has been referred to as "George Bush lite".  Harper's agenda, hidden or not, seems to be to get out of everything except the banks, prisons, the military, foreign affairs and inter-provincial commerce.

By David


Your musical accompaniment for the day:  Canadiana Suite, Oscar Peterson. Thank you Jack.

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