Whether you liked his politics or not, Jack Layton’s personal score on the likeability scale was, well, off the scale.
That smile framed in that signature moustache, that effervescent enthusiasm, his compassion mixed with a gritty willingness to scrap for what he believed in, his boldness, humour, and connectedness, his hopes and dreams for Canada made him so much more than a partisan politician.
There were signs of what was to come when he held a press conference in July to announce he was temporarily stepping aside as leader to combat a new form of cancer that had stricken him. Having successfully battled prostate cancer, he was hoping for the best from his treatment. But that new curse was already taking its toll. Then, barely a month later, cancer took his life in an almost Shakespearean tragedy. At the top of his game, he had so much more he wanted to do and to give.
The outpouring of shock and grief was palpable not only among NDPers but the general public. Thousands paid their last respects as his body lay in state in Ottawa and Toronto. Heartfelt public applause reverberated as people followed his last journey home.
Jack connected. He embraced everyone no matter their background, colour or social stigma. He gave people hope, and he gave himself hope that he could banish the cynicism that has come to define today’s politics. He had that inspirational quality that made so many want to be his friend, share a beer with him, hang out, and dream of new days. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper lamented the lost promise of the two of them getting together for a jam session, Harper on piano and Layton on guitar. Too often, bad things come too soon.
His passing raises challenges for the NDP. Canada is not a social-democratic leaning country and in recent elections it has moved from centre to centre-right. Right now, only Manitoba and Nova Scotia have NDP governments while B.C., Ontario and Saskatchewan have gone NDP in the past.
Jack’s tireless campaign during this year’s federal election put the NDP into the victorious, and surprising, Official Opposition position with 103-member caucus as the Bloc fell in Quebec and NDP rookie candidates filled the void, likely as much to their surprise as anyone else’s. Waving his cane as a triumphant banner, his image became iconic of the do-able and the achievable.
But his body said otherwise. In his last two days, he crafted a letter to Canadians. “All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada,” he wrote, addressing young Canadians. “I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today.”
Eulogizing his friend, former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis mourned Layton who, he said, died “at the pinnacle of his career.” And, to great applause, he acclaimed Layton’s letter at its heart as a manifesto for social democracy. “He made politics seem so natural and appealing.”
In so many ways, he was the ideal political leader, one whose reach extends beyond partisan barriers to the core social realm. But they come along rarely, their passage through life unique markers.
His last words linger, tempting the future.
“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.”
He was to the end the people’s politician who dreamed no little dreams. He strode forward, a grin on his face, a fire in his belly.
Cheers Jack. And thanks