Like most progressive-minded folk with Canadian friends, I was profoundly aggrieved to hear of Jack Layton's death last Monday. The leader of the New Democratic Party NDP) succumbed to cancer early Monday morning at the age of 61.
Those unfamiliar with Canada might not know much about him or what he stood for, but he cared deeply about the most vulnerable: workers, the homeless, the environment. He was a voice for the voiceless.
He was a lionhearted warrior. When he announced that he was taking a leave of absence to battle the illness, many thought he would do no less than make a full recovery. Having seen the man make a career of fighting seemingly lost causes, there was a palpable sense of public grief and disbelief that there was any challenge the man could not surmount in his political prime.
Layton, after all, was not shy about sticking his neck out to do right by the forgotten - even when he risked losing traction among voters. As a Toronto councilor, he opposed the city's bid for the 1996 Olympics, speaking out against throwing public money at a bread-and-circus affair of great corporate bombast, albeit a popular one. He opposed Canada's belligerent role in Afghanistan in favor of a humanitarian one. In 2006, with little regard for "completing the mission" chest thumping bravado, Layton called for Canadian forces to be withdrawn from the country, realizing it was either a costly fool's errand or an exercise in replacing one set of criminals with another. He even supported extending asylum to US soldiers who refused to fight in Iraq, caring little for appeasing the tireless war machine south of the border.
But despite the fact that Layton was tragically struck down at the peak of his career, there is something heartening about his story: voters rewarded him for his fighting spirit and the balance he struck between rational pragmatism and a strong sense of morals. When he assumed the NDP leadership in 2003, the party was a fringe actor. Yet, despite the rise of Stephen Harper's GOP-esque Conservative Party, he refused to encourage progressives to engage in strategic voting (i.e. telling his supporters to vote for a Liberal in battleground ridings). This was controversial even among NDP supporters, considering the regressive threat represented by Conservatives. But pandering to the Liberals might not have helped in the end. Canada's traditional natural ruling party wasn't just reeling from the aftermath of a corruption scandal; they were becoming something of a complacent, amoral entity. Layton's firm stance, however, reinvigorated the Canadian left. After his first election at the helm of the NDP in 2003, the party won only 19 seats in Parliament and each subsequent election saw the electorate put more and more trust in Layton's NDP. In the latest election in May, the party won 30 percent of the national vote, 103 seats, and saw Layton assume the title of official head of the opposition, a first for the NDP. The Liberals may have run a candidate who had once feted torture, and Harper may have won a majority of seats with only just under 40 percent of the popular vote, but the NDP's performance was a silver lining for progressive Canadians, who were otherwise horrified by the outcome.
And Layton didn't just pick up seats from Liberals. Under his tutelage, the NDP managed to make inroads in Quebec, ousting the separatist Bloc Quebecois from the vast majority of their seats in La Belle Province. Through that lens of cross-cultural appeal, there is a lesson to be learned by progressives around the world. Layton's unwavering faith in social democracy won voters over. Not just because he put forth a message of monopoly-busting efficiency and a Keynesian mantra of full employment, but because he was willing to fight to make society accessible to all, not just those born into privilege.
It was a mantra that Layton held close to his heart until the very end, unadulterated by success at the end of his life and career. After the NDP's latest electoral gain and a June debate about how far it could go in Ottawa, for example, the party refused to scrub its constitution of "socialism" - an ideology one caucus member described as "not an anchor; it's a rocket."
"There was no disagreement about the values," Layton said in an interview with The Toronto Star.
It was about a month after that convention that Layton decided to take his leave of absence since his cancer - which he had first overcome in 2010 - returned. After his health rapidly deteriorated, he made one final appeal to New Democrats to reaffirm those socially conscious values in a moving letter to the public:
"There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause," he wrote from his deathbed. "But that cause is much bigger than any one leader. Answer them by recommitting with energy and determination to our work. Remember our proud history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind."
In the same letter, Layton launched into a final stump speech to those unconvinced:
"Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world," he wrote. "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 for our children. We can do our part to save the world's environment. We can restore our good name in the world.
"Consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together," he concluded. "Don't let them tell you it can't be done."
Jack, We Hardly Knew Ye
The news of Layton's death was very disheartening on a personal level. To make matters more fraught with emotion for me, I studied at McGill University in Montreal - Layton's alma mater - and heard the news of his seemingly sudden death while on a bus trip home after a whirlwind weekend visiting friends in Toronto. It was a long ride through places ravaged by anti-Laytons (Buffalo, western Pennsylvania etc.), but I refused to read his self-penned dirge for fear of being reduced to tears in front of a busload of strangers. It was a beautiful letter - funereal but inspiring - with a universal appeal worthy of a man who so gracefully walked the line between fighter and unifier.
I deeply regret never taking the time to meet Jack, even though I had the chance. He came to McGill for some Q and A's on several occasions. And once, after talking to students, he even went out to quaff a few beers with students at Biftek - a legendary bar on St. Laurent fit for a populist, one that isn't exactly ornate, to say the least. I very much rue passing up the opportunity to rub beer-soaked elbows with him on that occasion, but I did see him in his element (not mine). On one occasion, he spoke at a Parliament Hill demonstration against George W. Bush during the Imperial One's visit to Ottawa. Layton wielded his silver tongue on a typically brisk winter evening in Ottawa to denounce the Bushist view of the world as something to be bought, sold and conquered. And as a member of the McGill NDP mailing list, I was also asked (somehow, as a nonvoting American) to attend a national video conference in the run up to the 2006 election, where Layton - still nowhere near the official opposition in polls - gave a fiery inspirational speech to supporters. His warmth, intelligence and enthusiasm and his off-the-cuff speech lit up the fiber optics and inspired his supporters from British Columbia to Nova Scotia.
But enough about me. And enough about Canada. The country might, in general, be far less conservative than the US, thus contributing to his successes, but his was a message of fairness that can be appreciated by people the world over. That a number of observers deeply skeptical of politicians have paid tribute to Layton, even though they may not have always seen eye to eye with him, is a testament to the man's character and integrity. It takes an honest man to make an iconic mustache a symbol of warmth. He was a rare natural leader who led by example and wouldn't use his authority to bully. An ideal for a social democrat, the world will be a lesser place without him.
Although, as he so eloquently reminded us in his curtain call, it doesn't have to be. The Jack Laytons of this world will only ever be as strong their constituents. His heartwarming letter was a fitting exit for a revered 21st-century leader who refused to be cowed into thinking that the fight for social justice is foolhardy and of a bygone era. He may have left this world too early, but at least we can say that he didn't tell us it couldn't be done, as long as we make it so.