Jack Layton at a campaign event in Edmonton, March 26, 2011 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Don’t mourn! Organize! — Joe Hill, Swedish-American union organizer

As happens each year at this time, I’m rendered almost speechless by the loss of Jack Layton, seven years ago today. The piece below, with my own fond memory of Mr. Layton, was published on this date in 2011, just hours after we had heard the terrible news. DJC

It’s OK to mourn the loss of Jack Layton, of course, Joe Hill’s wise strategic counsel to social activists notwithstanding.

Another shot of Mr. Layton, frail, but still campaigning hard, at the same event (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

It’s also OK to take a moment to mourn before we start to talk about the implications for the Canadian New Democratic Party of the death of Mr. Layton, which are very grave and must not be brushed away with glib optimism as I am sure many of us are tempted to do at a moment like this.

Canada’s New Democratic Party leader was beloved by many of us and respected by many more. His loss at the age of 61, still in the prime of his political life, comes as a profound shock, even to those of us who feared the worst after his news conference less than a month ago, at which he announced he was stepping down as leader of the Opposition to battle a new onslaught of cancer.

For those of us who have heard Mr. Layton speak, let alone who have met and talked with him, it is very hard to comprehend that someone so full of life could be alive no more.

On the theory that the best mourning is done by retelling happy tales that illustrate the character of our departed comrade, let me tell you about my peculiar relationship with Mr. Layton, the only leader of a national or provincial political party ever to have picked up the telephone and made a cold call to me, to ask me for an unusual favour, no less.

Mourners gather at the Alberta Legislature after Mr. Layton’s death (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Actually, this is a bit of a fib. He had a political aide call first, to make sure I’d be waiting by my telephone when he phoned. But the aide, a very polite young person whose name, I’m afraid, escapes me at this moment, refused to reveal the topic of the upcoming call.

This happened back in 2008, and to tell you the truth, with a federal election looming, I thought Mr. Layton might be about to ask me to be a candidate in one of those Alberta ridings that was and is as lost a cause for the NDP as, say, a rural riding in Quebec…

In the event, however, Sunny Jack astounded me with another request entirely. Would I consider becoming, he asked, the poet laureate of the NDP?

Well, maybe the word laureate never left his lips, but without a doubt the phrase poet of the NDP was uttered more than once.

This turned out to be the brainchild of a mischievous Toronto business journalist and teacher named Kimberly Noble, a former colleague of mine at the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business who apparently had Mr. Layton’s ear on certain matters. It seems she had persuaded him of the potential political uses of light verse on current topics and given him the idea I was just the guy to dash off such stuff on demand.

Of course I said yes, although I’m sorry to report that nothing much came of this cheerful scheme. Presumably cooler heads prevailed in the busy months leading up to the great achievement of May 2011.

On the other hand, Mr. Layton consistently responded, politely and swiftly, when I misused his private Parliamentary email address and sent him questions for the enlightenment of this blog’s readers, so all was not for naught.

Now, at a moment when New Democrats really need a poet laureate, we are all struck dumb. So let’s look back to Election Eve, 2008, and to a happy plea that came true to a remarkable degree in 2011.

But what will we do now? That, of course, is a question for a few hours hence…

Election Eve, 2008

We’ve heard the pitches, promised goals
Put forth by Tories and by Libs.
Why are they sinking in the polls?
Perhaps because they’re mostly fibs!
Now that they know they can’t relate
Because their plans, revealed, are seen
To be a failure in debate,
They hope to get us voting Green,
It’s their last chance, the only way
To beat the surging NDP
And save their butts on Voting Day.
We hope that all Canadians see:
To get the country back on track
It’s time to vote for Layton, Jack!

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  1. I met Jack Layton and heard him speak at the Comox Music Fest long before his final election. He was hale and spoke robustly to a friendly crowd. But instead of the usual Dipper fare championing triumphs of the past or warning of threats to what we’ve already achieved and become accustomed to, he contrasted with his immediate predecessors, both rather doctrinaire tokens to feminist affirmative action, with raw, personal energy, striding boldly through the audience and jogging heartily to the stage, he seemed to have done nothing more than offer what he subsequently boiled his campaign down to: hope, the van of movement, the prow ordinary people feel safe getting behind without having to be the spearhead themselves.

    Layton was an astute politician, raised in Quebec, his father a cabinet minister, and his chops learned in civic politics in Canada’s biggest city. His going-places energy impressed all, even his politcal rivals, as genuinely sincere. Although he never, ever forgot to pay deference to his supporters and colleagues, he was recognizably a leader in the first place, not simply a loyal apparatchik or ideologue perfunctorily promoted to the top (if this weren’t so his Toronto civic experience and the NDP’s mulish political correctness might have been to his detriment elsewhere in the country). He looked ready because he was—and not in a Dipper Mesiah way, either.

    As cultish as Layton’s ascendancy might have appeared, it was more carefully calculated than adoring fans might have realized. There was something Stephen Harper, nominally Layton’s arch-neo-right rival, admired of the new New Democratic leader that wasn’t totally revealed by Harper’s remarkable state funeral for him (I don’t begrudge the former PM sincere condolence, despite his reputation for outward coldness—and mean-spiritedness toward partisan rivals) which probably had a lot more to do with symbolically burying the undeniable Layton ‘cult of hope’ for Conservative advantage. For friends and enemies alike, Layton’s death so soon after leading the hitherto third-place NDP to its zenith of Official Opposition was so palpably tragic the calculated symbolism was lost in the tears. Layton would have understood because, after all, he attempted exactly the same thing as Harper (which imitation the iron-clad heart might have been flattered by): to marginalized (or “slay”, in Harperese) the centrist Liberal party and provoke a purely left-right head to head butt-fight. Layton’s and Harper’s kinship can be put another way: both their ascendancies were as anomalous as the Liberals’ self-disqualification. In retrospect —both parties of the left and right having resumed their traditional positions—the real left-right battle was waged within the Liberal party after the decidedly non-ideological Jean Chrétien had resigned and the self-entitled Paul Martin failed to mend fences between factions which, subsequent to Martin’s lacklustre leadership, tore Liberals apart in a cringingly brutal ideological death match that effectively knocked ‘Canada’s natural governing party’ out of contention. Harper might have wholeheartedly felt whilst orchestrating the spectacle of Layton’s state funeral that, after taking unwarranted credit for “slaying” the centrist Liberals (he’d only taken a selfie over the prostrate Liberals after they’d beaten themselves to a pulp), the ritualistic interment of the left’s symbolic cult-leader marked the beginning of a millennium-long Conservative reign.

    As an astute politician Layton realized the Liberals’ absence was temporary and the opportunity to challenge the Cons’ equally anomalous ascendancy was an equally temporary window. Did he imagine the right assuming the perennial third-party place his NDP had held for so long, government thenceforth oscillating between centrist and left the new norm? It seems unlikely he could have imagined the Cons “slayed” once and for all, or the party middle-of-the-road Canadians are most comfortable with laying dormant for long. Layton’s vision, therefore, was, like Harper’s, to take advantage of the Liberal time-out and (unlike Harper) legitimize the NDP for popular national acceptance as occasional government or Official Opposition. One of his most important accomplishments in this regard was winning 54 seats in Quebec where the NDP had hitherto not been considered a viable option. As Harper himself realized: no federal party can go far without Quebec (the sometimes bitchy oldest spinster sister who is basically federalist at heart).

    But Jack probably never thought ideological tumult within his own party would rear its ugly ass: the general love for Layton, only more intense inside the partisanship, effectively buried for a while what had always been one the party’s worst bugbears. In the end, Layton bid farewell to a party he knew was in capable hands of Tom Mulcair who was sincerely foresworn to steady the course toward the only future any astute pundit or politician could imagine: taking advantage of the temporary Liberal absence to legitimize and make more palatable the Dipper brand. Unfortunately Mulcair didn’t have Layton’s winning smile even though the new leader won the Dippers’ second largest number of seats (after Layton’s highest number) and, critically but mostly unacknowleged, retained a third of the Quebec seats when the Liberals inevitably roared back after solving their own debilitating civil war. These feats should be attributed to both leaders. Mulcair, after all, made the Dippers the most popular party in Canada (not even jack did that), proved civil parliamentary debate could be revived after the Cons had kicked decorum to the rug and that the NDP may now be a legitimate option in Quebec (and Quebec voters play those cards very well, as we know). Between both leaders the separatist Bloc Québécois, once Official Opposition (the highest a parochial federal party could ever get) was reduced to a rump, dragging the Parti Québécois down with it.

    Jack might have rolled over in his grave if he saw what spiteful ideological lefties did to Mulcair in return: blaming him for the Liberals’ resurgence that both he and Jack knew was inevitable; accusing him of ‘forcing the party to the right’ even though this was the course Layton approved of in order to win government; and churlishly —instead of bookishly like leftie idealists like to think of themselves—drawing and quartering him for calling out Harper’s desperately racist niqab ploy.

    In retrospect what Jack did was remarkable and good for Canada and his party. I thought it was tragic how it turned out but I’d rather not remember the man that way—besides, the real tragedy was perpetrated on his successor in a childish tantrum of disappointment, proving only that Jack was a visionary, not a dreamer. Too bad the dreamers abused their party democracy, but the successes of Jack and Thomas will serve Canada well far into the future.

    Jack! We miss you! We’ll never forget you. HOPE IS BETTER THAN FEAR!

    Thnx for this, DJC

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