A true progressive: remembering Jack Layton

*This article was originally published last year to mark the passing of Jack Layton.*

The second last time I saw Jack Layton was at a garden party at Stornoway in late June. Speaking under a vast white tent as desultory raindrops punished the exiled mass of smokers, he declared his and Olivia’s new house, the residence of the leader of the official opposition, to be “the people’s house.”

Shortly afterwards I caught him on his way out and sheepishly asked for a photo. I can’t say why really, I suppose I was overcome by the emotion of the moment. In seven years and something like twenty meetings and conversations, it was the first time I posed for a picture with him. I remember mumbling apologies for being so sycophantic, which he brushed off with his usual generosity of spirit.

The last time I saw Jack Layton I was in the gallery above the House of Commons as he delivered his now legendary speech to kick off the NDP filibuster of Conservative back to work legislation for Canada Post. Unaided by cane or desk, he stood for over an hour, speaking passionately and personally in defence of worker’s rights.

He talked about his neighbours, his constituents, his friends and his experiences. He stitched together this quilt of impressions, anecdotes and beliefs into a sprawling masterpiece, which Peter Stoffer would later describe as one of the finest speeches he had ever seen in his many years in the House.

Dylan Thomas wrote of our raging against the dying of the light. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the man universally known as Jack is the relish he took in doing battle against the dying of the light, and ever so implausibly, beating back the darkness from time to time.

In an age where things are getting progressively worse all around us, where gains of previous generations are being rolled back at an ever increasing clip and so many of us feel powerless to stem the tide of darkness, Jack rolled up his sleeves and dug in, refusing to believe that any lost cause could not be salvaged with a little love, hope and optimism.

In progressive circles, people often refer to “the sickness.” They mean that to choose a thankless life of 70 hour weeks, meagre salary and only the rarest of victories – the life of those who fight to make the world a better place – over the cushy perks of a corporate gig requires a certain measure of madness. Jack was definitely touched by the sickness, and he spread it to those he met with the virulence of a plague.

For an entire generation of Canadians, he taught us not only that a better world is possible, but that if we want it we have to fight for it. One need look no farther than the crop of new MPs, some of whom were as young as 12 when Jack ascended to the leadership of the NDP, to see his influence. He brought young people to politics like no one before him, fighting off cynicism and apathy as he inspired a generation of Canadians to fight for what they believed in.

I can’t really say I knew Jack well, and I so wish I had had a chance to get to know him better. We met often and I recall with pride and the faintest touch of a blush that he always managed to retrieve my name from his elephant sized memory, but we never really spoke at length, or shared a laugh over beers. He nevertheless had a huge impact on my life, and an even greater one on those younger than I, for whom he is the only leader of the NDP they have ever known.

As I write these words I am in a car traversing the midsection of Ontario, on my way to Toronto for the eminently deserved state funeral. On Tuesday I was in a café in Barcelona, sitting down for lunch, when a text message brought the walls down around my head. Wednesday I trooped through the sombre halls of centre block to sign the condolence book and take my moment in front of the flag draped coffin, head bowed to commune a final time with Jack.

Shaking hands with the indomitable Olivia I was shaken by her strength, her incredible composure and resolve in the face of tragedy. She brushed off the condolences of myself and a gaggle of staffers as she passed, telling us only that we knew what we had to do, fight on, twice as hard.

Joe Hill sang “Don’t mourn, organize!” and it’s been a credo of the labour and progressive movements ever since. But in this case I think I’ll do both. Jack was a titan, a larger than life figure who compromised when he had to, and sometimes more than we would have liked him to, but never broke from the progressive principles that shaped his life.

He believed in the movement, the communal project of making our world fairer, freer and socially just. No matter how large his stature grew, or how his name and face came to dominate the NDP, he never lost sight of his place as a cog in a larger struggle.

On the left we face the perennial challenge of holding true to our principles while struggling to achieve our goals in a world where the deck is always stacked against us. The media and corporate propagandists have largely succeeded in convincing the mice to vote for the cats, as Tommy Douglas would say.

Over the years many of my progressive friends have given me grief for my allegiance to the NDP. The party has become too moderate, they would argue, just another flavour of cat, not a party of mice at all. At times their criticism had merit, for instance in the party’s failure to take a principled stand for Palestinian human rights, but I always argued that Jack was doing what had to be done to actually change things and I believed in his principles and commitment to the progressive cause, and that of the NDP caucus.

This week Judy Rebick, a giant of the left in her own right, wrote about Jack that he was always more of an activist than a politician. Even when they did not see eye-to-eye, and even when she quit the party, she wrote, he always treated her as a comrade and never took her dissent as a betrayal. In her words, “Jack was a rare politician whose driving force was not ego but his passion for social justice and his compassion for people.”

Jack was a true progressive, in every sense of the word. He believed in a better world, and spent his life figuring out how to get there.

This is perhaps the hardest article I’ve ever written. I feel as though my words are hopelessly insufficient to contain the legacy of a man so much larger than life that he leapt off every page which ever tried to contain him.

I was in Nathan Phillips Square this morning and it was hard not to be overcome by the outpouring of grief and love expressed there. Every available surface has been covered in chalk messages of hope, love and solidarity, written in every imaginable language. The line to view his casket was so long I was unable to follow it to its end.

Faced with the aching insufficiency of words, all I can really say is that Jack was an inspiration, a leader for the ages, a legend who will live on in the hearts and minds of a nation’s worth of dreamers who dare to hope for a better world.

In his final letter to Canadians, Jack asked us to carry on the fight, and we will. We will carry it right to the doors of 24 Sussex Drive four years from now, and in his words, we won’t stop until the job is done. We’ll do it for you Jack, but we’ll do it for ourselves as well.   I can’t think of a more fitting tribute.

“My Friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.” Jack Layton (1950-2011)

* Photos from Toronto vigil by Tomas Urbina

Follow Ethan on Facebook and Twitter:
[like url=http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ethan-Cox/173815282688113]

Facebook Comments

One comment

  • Well done Ethan, a great article read on company time! Hey, I never knew you were such a wordsmith! A fantastic and touching peice of journalism. I mentioned to Wendy that I had felt crestfallen this week and that the expected had come unexpectedly soon. I signed the memorial book not quite knowing what to say, worrying I wouldn`t be eloquent enough and worrying who would see how unpoetic and unoriginal and unauthentic I sounded. I walked to parliament listening to my favorite gospel singer of all time, Dorothy Love Coates and decided to borrow one of her lyrics as my entry into the memorial book. Today, we as a family are wearing orange. Jack, what a guy….Thanks for this great article and your personal antidotes, they are so endearing. Stay well. -Laura

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.