When reporting the passing of Jack Layton, the Los Angeles Times called him a “folksy Canadian political leader,” adding the word “charismatic” later in the article.
“Folksy” somehow does describe the Leader of the Official Opposition, especially when considering his campaign during the May federal election. Who can forget a beaming Layton, waving his cane skyward in infectious exuberance. It was a gesture repeated many times as those cheering for his message grew in magnitude as the campaign progressed. The fact that his optimism was obviously reaching more and more Canadians as the campaign drew to a close finally attracted the attention of the media, which began to speak of an “orange wave” sweeping the land.
What Layton managed to do within eight years was resurrect a party that was on the cusp of political obscurity. How did he do it? Well, in part it was his “folksy charm,” but he also exuded a sunny disposition. Layton became a man that people believed they could trust, although they may not have been willing to vote NDP.
In fact, regardless of political stripe, all Canadians remember “Smilin’ Jack,” or simply “Jack” as he was coined in newspapers, as that good fellow anyone wouldn’t mind sharing a coffee with at Tim Horton’s or a beer at the local pub. Jack sort of grew on you. As the years passed, Canadians began to recognize that the “left” in the left-wing NDP wasn’t as great a bogeyman with Layton at the helm. Layton clearly demonstrated to all that he was no left-wing wacko out to transform Canada into a socialist utopia. Instead, Layton openly professed that what he sought was for Canadians from all walks of life be governed by “fairness.”
What should be realized is that Layton was an extremely astute politician who carefully nurtured his “folksy” image. Being pragmatic, he also knew that being a self-professed social democrat was less a liability than hovering on the fringes of the far left, a marginal position that had brought his party to a low of just 15 seats in the House of Commons when he took over its leadership in 2003. His message was that people matter, whether they were homeless (he wrote a book on the subject) or safely ensconced in a middle-class existence.
What he said during the campaign resonated so well with voters that his party captured 103 seats in the House, 59 of which were in Québec — a breakthrough no pundit could have predicted at the start of the campaign. Of course, the NDP was helped in Québec by a faltering Liberal Party and a floundering Bloc Québeçois as well as a Conservative Party that had virtually written off the province, but it was Layton who tied up all the loose ends and made the NDP a force to be reckoned with. Without Layton, there would have been no surge in popularity for a party that had previously been dismissed as irrelevant in Québec.
His political opponents at first mistakenly regarded “Smilin’ Jack” as non-threatening, but learned to regret their labeling of a man who was more tiger than wimp on the political stage. His friendly demeanor disguised a coldly calculating political animal, which he had been for most of his adult life, first as a high-profile Toronto councillor and then as a federal party leader and MP. Layton’s “partner” in politics was his second wife Olivia, who also became a Toronto councillor and an MP. They were the dynamic duo of Canadian politics.
Layton was criticized by some media pundits for joining a coalition with the Liberals led by the ill-fated Stéphane Dion, who claimed the NDP Leader was an opportunist seeking a cabinet in a government which his party would not otherwise be in a position to ever form through an election. Well, the coalition fell apart and Layton didn’t become deputy prime minister, but he did accomplish the previously unthinkable through an election — he became the Leader of the Official Opposition. In Layton’s mind, the logical next step was to in four years unseat the Stephen Harper run Conservatives and achieve the more lofty position of prime minister.
Could he have done it? With his passing at the relative young age of 61 years, it is now something that can only be speculated upon. Yet, too many people had previously misjudged Layton to their detriment.
But even Layton recognized the greatest barrier to his political aspirations was his health, which had betrayed him once before in 2010. When he appeared at a June press conference to announce that he was stepping aside as party leader for further cancer treatment — his second bout with prostate cancer — what startled Canadians was how far his health had deteriorated. His faint voice didn’t sound at all like the one which had invigorated a nation to consider the NDP as an alternative to the other parties.
Despite his illness, his message hadn’t changed: “If I have tried to bring anything to federal politics, it is the idea that hope and optimism should be at their heart.”
When it became apparent that his treatment for cancer was not working out, he wrote to others living with cancer, “please don’t be discouraged that my own journey hasn’t gone as well as I had hoped ...
“And finally, to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. 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. We can do all these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change ...
“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.”
No one can dispute that Layton was not a man of strong beliefs as shown by his final words to his party and the nation. How he articulated his beliefs while he lived is the reason why so many now grieve his loss.
“On behalf of all Canadians,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in an official statement following Layton’s death, “I salute Jack’s contribution to public life, a contribution that will be sorely missed.”
That he deserves to be saluted by all Canadians is recognized by the government’s appropriate decision that Layton’s contributions be honoured through a state funeral on Saturday (August 27).
He will be missed.