Bon Jack was a true son of Quebec who elicited hope and energy
The outpouring of love, admiration and respect for Jack Layton across the country is something we haven’t seen for a politician since the death of former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. It is remarkable, given the low esteem Canadians have for most politicians, and the fact that Layton only since the May election began to look like maybe, just maybe, he could hope to become the first New Democratic Party prime minister of Canada.
Jack, as everybody called him, was a different breed of cat. He was all politician all the time, for sure, but he was so much more. For one thing, he was a true son of Quebec, raised in Hudson, coming from a family distinguished by its commitment to politics and the community, not necessarily in that order. He studied at McGill University and was influenced by his teacher, the political philosopher Charles Taylor, who in the 1960s made several attempts to be elected under the NDP banner and served for a time as party president. It was Taylor who urged young Layton to continue post-graduate studies in Toronto, where he studied under political economist Jim Laxer, a leader in the Waffle group that tried unsuccessfully to push the NDP further left.
Laxer saw something unique in the then-20-something Layton. As he blogged after Layton’s death, “When Jack walked into my graduate course at York University in the early 1970s, it didn’t take me long to see that this was someone very special. The energy and the luminous intelligence were on full display, as well as his respect for others, and the joy he took in meeting people.”
Even then, Layton was a grass-roots guy and, reflecting that aspect of his character, started his political work at the municipal level in Toronto. He is remembered as playing a pioneering role in 18 years as a city councillor, focusing attention on homelessness, campaigning for affordable housing, advocating green energy before it became fashionable, supporting free choice for women, gay rights and the right of cyclists to ride the city’s roadways in safety. As president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, he put the plight of tax-starved cities on the national agenda, paving the way for the federal infrastructure program and getting them a share of the federal gas tax.
Over 18 years, Layton became a household word in Toronto, and after failing to win the mayor’s job, took over the federal NDP in 2003. After all those years in the trenches, Layton was armed with that common touch, a certain negotiating skill, a grass-roots feel and ability to communicate in English and French that none of his predecessors had. Tommy Douglas, a former Baptist minister, was an amazing orator, as was the brilliant David Lewis, a silver-tongued labour lawyer. When they spoke, you could hear the ideology that underlined their words. Ed Broadbent had been a professor, and with all his smarts and integrity, did not have the ease with people that Layton had.
Layton exuded hope and energy, a believer who was also a man who got things done. He was charming and open, a man of sure commitments, but also ready to make a deal to get half a loaf if the full loaf was not attainable.
He spoke a colloquial French that he picked up playing hockey in Hudson. He surely worked on it as well, and that helped cultivate the Bon Jack image that worked to his advantage in Quebec’s Orange Crush, when the NDP won 59 of its 103 seats.
What a contrast that loose and chummy persona made with the stiff, overly intellectual Michael Ignatieff. Even tieless and in a V-neck sweater, Prime Minister Stephen Harper fails to elicit warmth. And the Quebec electorate decided it had had enough of Gilles Duceppe’s divisiveness.
The great irony of Layton’s life is that, as he was to begin life in Stornoway, the official opposition leader’s residence, cancer took his life at 61.
It will be up to a new leader and the biggest NDP caucus ever to build on the base that Jack Layton, smiling and courageous in adversity, did so much to build. His legacy is there for all to see.