Remembering Jack Layton: 1950-2011

I WAS INFORMED of the death earlier this morning of Federal New Democratic Party leader, Jack Layton, by Twitter. There, in an uninterrupted chain of entries numbering in the dozens (and perhaps into the hundreds: I gave up counting) were expressions of sorrow. Never have I seen such universalism of sentiment, such spontaneous participation in a mood which appears to have touched everyone, really everyone, down to a person.

It would happen sometimes that I would see Mr. Layton and Ms. Chow on the streets of Ottawa (nothing unusual there: I’ve encountered near every federal leader of the past twenty years in the environs of Parliament, including Layton’s predecessor, Ed Broadbent). They cut a stylish and smart figure. I remember seeing them one bright morning of this past winter, near what was once the photography museum and now 1 Wellington Street, both of them in fashionable hats and wearing well-tailored long coats. Even if you didn’t know who they were, you would have taken notice of them. But why the cane? I wondered. Soon enough I had my answer, which of course was the news of surgery and of poor health whose sad ending we confront today.

I remember Jack Layton not only as the federal leader of the NDP but as a Toronto municipal politician, which is the manner by which I first encountered him. He ran unsuccessfully as mayor in the early 90s, and I confess I wrote him off at that point as a has-been. The idea that he would not only lead a federal party but would become the most popular leader of the parties was then an absurdity. Yet this is precisely how things turned out. The recent victory of the NDP (finishing a strong second constitutes victory when you are on the left end of the spectrum) is in fact a Layton victory. How sad, and how bitterly unfair, that just when he had brought about this personal triumph illness took him away. He may well have led the party to even higher altitudes, and we will now never know. It is however certain that whatever the NDP’s approaching fortunes, no one was better equipped than he to lead. He was a liked man, and in politics this is extraordinary praise.

I myself will remember Jack Layton as a man who never wavered in his support of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, and of survivors in general. As the details of the 2008 Indian Residential School apology were being discussed, the presence of former students on the floor of the House of Commons was at the top of the list. Parliamentary rules however precluded anyone but elected Members of Parliament being in the chamber during a sitting. Fittingly, it was Jack Layton who came up with the solution. He informed the Prime Minister that if parliamentarians met as a Committee of the Whole, then members of the public could be present. Once again, Layton proved himself an able and committed ally of indigenous people and of those in particular who had suffered in the Indian residential schools. For this alone he had my respect.

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