In this poignant appreciation of Jack Layton, his friend Robin Sears considers the impact of the NDP leader’s death on Canadians, who mourned not the politician so much as the man.
Strong leaders deny or disguise their disease and disability. Roman emperors and English kings did it.
Roosevelt and Churchill did it. So did John Kennedy and even Tommy Douglas. As recently as the 1980s, David Lewis insisted for years that his spreading cancer not be revealed beyond a tight family circle.
Whether it is the disfigurement of polio in Roosevelt’s and Douglas’ cases, or the depression and despair that led Churchill to drink prodigiously, or the agony of deep back pain that led Kennedy to consume daily a powerful cocktail of painkillers and barbiturates, the reason for leaders’ public deceit is always the same: illness is weakness, weakness invites attack.
At least in Canada, that will never happen again.
Jack Layton’s celebration of life in the face of death bequeathed us this transformation in our politics as his final legacy. It will be among the most important of his achievements to those who struggle to survive cancer or other medical curses and to live lives of meaning and fulfillment at the same time.
The instant cliché of his cane brandished in defiance, not disability, and the cartoons and photos of that bravado now flooding the Internet will live as proof of the triumph of, as he said, “hope over fear.” One can almost hear, years from now, a partner or a physiotherapist imploring a deflated stroke victim to “Think of Jack” as an appeal against surrender.
Andrew Coyne was the first to frame this power behind Canada’s almost universal emotional eruption, in an elegant elegy in Maclean’s. The explosion of grief and then the sometimes mawkish displays of love and admiration, he pointed out, were a testament not to Jack as a politician, or even to Jack as a compelling leader in the fight for social justice, though those were important parts of the outpouring.
They were a tribute to a man who publicly flaunted his final battle with several cancers, who painfully limped, then hobbled, then hopped, and finally ran across the finish line in the triumphant electoral victory of his life, cane brandished on election night as he saluted his supporters, only to have that victory snatched from him weeks later. The best story and the best storyteller always win in politics. Jack’s was epic by any standard.
It was a moment that stunned the nation. Despite the dreadful gaunt visage Canadians had witnessed only weeks before, no one was prepared for the shocking news early on a normally sleepy summer Monday morning. Skeptics, ignorant of the necessary armour of a battle against a powerful disease, muttered that he must have known, that he should have told Canadians that he was dying. One hopes, when faced with the same existential nightmare, they come to understand that however long the odds, no one who cheats cancer by living a meaningful life ever admits defeat, or even its prospect.
Despite insistent pressure from the media, he refused to discuss the new cancer that had hit him. Olivia Chow was equally determined after his death, saying that Jack did not want every prostate survivor to think that his would be their fate as well.
Two decades earlier, as a busy Toronto politician, Jack had accompanied his father to his Toronto prostate surgeon on many visits over several years. As the now internationally famous surgeon, ironically counsellor to both father and son in their cancer battles, said, “In all my years of family visits I have rarely seen a man play the role of care guardian. It is always women who accompany my patients. It made an early impression on me about Jack.” Layton’s early exposure to the painful nightmare of a long battle with cancer — his father’s lasted a decade — made him keenly aware of the debilitating myths and stereotyping surrounding cancer care.
Talking to other cancer survivors in private, Jack would say, “You can’t just tell people ‘not to worry,’ or ‘prepare to die in six months.’ You can’t expect everyone to be able to carry on or tell others they should just quit. You just have to give everyone support for the way they choose to fight this battle. For me, I am a fighter…to the end.”
It had never happened before — not in Canada, nor in any modern democracy. A leader at the height of his career, struck down within weeks of his greatest political triumph, but not before he could carefully lay out his political will to his family and political allies. His political legacy, therefore, will last longer and be an invisible hand guiding his party, its caucus and its supporters more directly than we have ever seen in Canadian politics.
The interplay of triumph and loss, hope and grief that marked Jack Layton’s final weeks was almost Shakespearean. His sudden death dominated the national news agenda for days, with spontaneous displays of mourning in cities across the country, culminating in a controversial state funeral watched by millions of Canadians. Those powerful images and memories will be slow to fade.
Reporters covering the 1980 Carter-Reagan campaign travelling through small towns in West Virginia were astonished to find on kitchen walls faded pictures of Jack Kennedy. Nearly two decades after his sudden death, Kennedy remained an icon for many Americans, a sad memory of what might have been. Pierre Trudeau remains a political lodestone for many Canadian Liberals a decade after his death and a generation after he left office.
Jack Layton’s celebration of life in the face of death bequeathed us this transformation in our politics as his final legacy. It will be among the most important of his achievements to those who struggle to survive cancer or other medical curses and to live lives of meaning and fulfillment at the same time.
Jack Layton will not have that same gravitational pull 20 years from now, but like John Diefenbaker and Tommy Douglas, he has already been admitted to the very small club of politicians that most Canadians of every political conviction remember with affection and respect. Reporters in small towns in Quebec will, I suspect, find faded copies of Pat Corrigan’s powerful image of Jack on a bike, flag flying behind while riding into the sunset, several elections from now.
The transformation from politician reasonably well liked to political sainthood was, in Layton’s case, sudden, stunning and unheard of in Canadian politics. Tommy Douglas moved into the small pantheon of the permanently blessed slowly, over several decades.
Within minutes of Layton’s passing on a summer Monday morning, Stephen Harper recognized that it would become a unifying moment for Canadians. He called Olivia Chow with his idea and then ordered the machinery of government to prepare a state funeral. It was a gracious and bold decision. Despite some muttering among his own colleagues and some astonishingly graceless commentary among a few predictable pundits, it showed both statesmanship and adroit political skill.
Imagine the reaction if, on seeing the outpouring of grief that swept many Canadians, the Prime Minister had done what anal bureaucrats in the protocol section of Heritage Canada and tradition would have prescribed, and simply said no to the public call for a grand celebration. It would have become another example of the harsh partisan edge with which he is usually lashed. Curiously, Harper has shown a similar compassion and sensitive antennae in a number of other cases, but has usually chosen to keep his role a secret. He has intervened behind the scenes to overturn bureaucrats’ and even security officials’ recommendations where a more sensitive approach to Canadian families in distress was called for.
The grace was widely recognized and praised, except in a few cases of deliberate insult, a sad product of the cynical armour that some journalists and politicians grow to shield themselves from life’s disappointments; theirs is a bitterness that generates sarcastic sneers about death. Layton, who often delighted in biting public and private self-deprecation, would merely have chuckled at their vulgarity.
The Prime Minister endured, with the occasional wry grimace, the hortatory rhetoric of Stephen Lewis at the funeral. He stood and clapped — requiring some of his even more reluctant cabinet colleagues to follow suit — at the frequent calls for a more just and equal Canada. He even danced hesitantly, prodded by Laureen, as the audience rocked to a cathartic version of “Rise Up,” Lorraine Segato’s anthem of liberation. Michael Ignatieff, meanwhile, tried hard to appear comfortable clapping to the rocker’s call to action, aware of colleagues watching him, everyone contrasting the joy in the room with his cringe-inducing effort to use a similar appeal so awkwardly only months before.
Standing in a darkened hall with thousands of Canadians of a wider spectrum of age and persuasion, ethnicity and political values than have probably ever been seen together, chanting, stomping, many openly in tears as Segato took them higher and higher, was a little head-snapping.
Canadians of a certain generation boast quietly about our softer, more elegant form of national celebration, in contrast to our more coarse neighbours. We cheer but we don’t bellow or bawl in public, is the mantra of a more Presbyterian Canada. If one reads the accounts of riots and celebration in the revolts of 1837, or the burning of the Parliament Buildings in Montreal in 1849, or the national grief as the surviving sons returned from the carnage of 1918, it is doubtful that it was ever true.
But for a younger generation and for Canadians whose backgrounds are rooted in cultures of public celebration and sorrow, that is not their Canada. They wanted to share the joy and pain together, to be part of a huge social occasion, online and in public squares. Stephen Harper understood that instantly, even if it took most of us longer.
Within minutes of Layton’s passing on a summer Monday morning, Stephen Harper recognized that it would become a unifying moment for Canadians. He called Olivia Chow with his idea and then ordered the machinery of government to prepare a state funeral. It was a gracious and bold decision.
Like the Arab Spring and the Vancouver, Greek, Chilean and London riots this summer, the Layton outpouring demonstrates how quick to enrage and easy to mobilize are citizens born in a digital age. These eruptions may turn ugly or catalyze dramatic social change, but they cannot be dismissed. Those who were in Tahrir Square have been transformed by their experience. Many of the young Canadians who left chalked messages for “their Jack,” and then returned several times to rewrite them as the rain came several times in that astonishing week, will describe the powerful emotions that swept those crowds to their children years from now.
There is a message in these sudden outpourings of joy, anger or grief. It is usually a raised middle finger to established authority. Canadians honouring Jack Layton were also expressing their anger and frustration with the political elites. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford respected this as he paid tribute to what he had learned from Layton as a young councillor and stood, clearly moved, with his hand on the coffin. Bob Rae understood this message from Canadians, better than some of his more jejune interviewers, in his calm but determined rejection of their several efforts to tempt him into conventional partisan rhetoric.
We now live in a world where these instant reactions of millions of citizens to unpredictable signals and events are the norm. The task of leadership today is to encourage and channel the transcendent opportunities, and to anticipate and diminish the more destructive. Sneering dismissal is not a wise option.
Beatification, political or spiritual, removes texture, context, colour and contrast. The new saint is always stripped of complexity and presented to the world in raiments of improbable perfection. Tommy Douglas had an acid tongue in private, and Pierre Trudeau could be staggeringly cruel to those close to him. Those aspects of character have been removed from the official hagiographies. Saint Jack is already a victim of this process.
Far more interesting and uplifting as a life story is the reality that the Jack Layton who electrified Canadians with his courage in fighting for life was a far more complex husband, father and leader than the two-dimensional poster hero that sainthood demands. He started out as a somewhat ungracious child of privilege and grew almost inevitably into teenage rebellion, an often angry university student and then a polemicist and compelling teacher.
As a young politician in his 30s he was often impatient, insensitive to hierarchy, nuance and ritual, a self-appointed crusader who could be blind to the offence he gave. His most bitter enemies of those days were often on the left as well as among Liberals and Conservatives.
His childhood was one of Canadian gentility, with a Father of Confederation, a provincial cabinet minister and a piano manufacturer among his direct ancestors. His affluent father, an engineer who led Sunday school classes, instilled a boisterous confidence in his son and went on to become first an activist for Jean Lesage’s Liberals and later a Mulroney cabinet minister and caucus chair. His mother instilled deep social values, including a high Protestant respect for the poor, the powerless and those relegated to life on the margins by disability, language or luck.
As David Brooks reports in his review of new research into politics, social policy and our changing understanding of the real drivers of human motivation, The Social Animal, these roots are powerful advantages. This inherited and then nurtured confidence, courage, sense of self and possibility that can come from an educated upper-middle-class childhood, guided by parents determined to balance privilege with responsibility, confers enormous advantage.
Layton was an icon of this powerful combination: handsome, smart and a natural persuader to boot. He could have become the driving CEO of a Canadian technology company, pushing innovation and wooing customers with smiling determination. He might have been an enormously successful litigator, capable of holding a client and a courtroom in his hand. His genes and connections would have granted access to large success in any Montreal or Toronto business or professional setting.
That he chose a life of social activism was no doubt in part a result of the times: Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, followed by Toronto’s explosion of civic and international activism, and the international zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He gave his mother credit as the mentor who pounded into him the sense of social obligation that his privilege demanded.
From his early days in Hudson, Quebec, Layton demonstrated the confidence and determination about right and wrong that remained his style 50 years later. In those days, this moral certitude could be binary and unforgiving. He was boisterous and athletic even in childhood, and classmates from elementary school recall his precocious defence of the underdog. “Little Jackie Layton,” as one friend’s older sibling insisted on calling him, could be seen racing down Birch Hill on his bike, decked out in geeky glasses, baggy trunks and “whatever bizarre one of his many weird T-shirts he had grabbed that morning.” He was a competitive swimmer from a young age, and as another childhood and lifelong friend separated by only a week in age said, “And I mean competitive!” They sailed and swam at the Hudson Yacht Club, a small-town institution that Layton believed was insufficiently welcoming to children from local francophone families. His criticism that francophones were not welcomed as members was dismissed by adults as unfair. “They simply don’t apply” was the claim.
As one club member from then and now put it, “Jack probably knew even at that age that the francophone Hudson families had neither the money for a boat nor a yacht club membership, and that they would be shunned if they tried to join in any event.” Jack used various ruses to introduce young francophone friends to the club. The stunts did not amuse the adults, and friends chuckle at the memory of his parents juggling social convention on one hand and support for their rambunctious son on the other.
He was regularly promoting causes to his high school mates, demanding that the school should contribute money to conservation or international development. As head of the 1967 student council he hounded the school and the town to improve recreational facilities for Hudson’s youth in Canada’s centennial year, publishing the first of a lifetime’s op-ed appeals in the Hudson Gazette. Tired of the haranguing, when Layton one day made a “final demand,” the school principal outfoxed the young activist. Layton, infused with the spirit of the times, had announced that he and his colleagues were going to take over the school gym, staging a sit-in until their demands were met. The principal merely closed the gym for the day and left Layton and his team to “sit in” all day without comment. In increasing hunger and frustration, the band began to head home at the end of a deflating day.
A deaf and speech-impaired student at Hudson High was the frequent butt of cruel taunts — unless Jack was around to defend her and to denounce the bullies, which he did vigorously for four years, her still admiring sister reports. He later recruited his protégé to be his typist on the high school yearbook, in those days produced in secret so that students’ smart-aleck jabs at their mates would remain a surprise until year end. He wrote her conspiratorially, “I know you can keep a secret!”
One scribble in a friend’s yearbook says: “Off to become Prime Minister!” a role to which he was elected in the McGill model parliament two years later. He clearly wasn’t kidding when he first publicly asserted the same ambition in the 2006 campaign, and despite the resounding sneers, by 2011 it was no longer improbable.
Canadians honouring Jack Layton were also expressing their anger and frustration with the political elites. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford respected this as he paid tribute to what he had learned from Layton as a young councillor and stood, clearly moved, with his hand on the coffin.
His family left for Toronto in 1970 and he continued his activism on the campus of the newly created York University. He worked his way through the academic ranks, completing his doctorate more than 10 years later, while teaching at Ryerson Polytechnic. Focusing on Canadian postwar experience, his doctorate was on the recondite issue of national governments’ efforts to control multinational capital flows. His case was the Foreign Investment Review Agency, the failed effort by Trudeau to control the flow of American capital into Canadian business.
In the ironies of political life, FIRA was abolished by his father’s government less than three years after Layton completed his thesis. His conclusion, not surprisingly for a social democrat, was that governments must manage the sometimes disruptive impact of flows of global capital. Stephen Harper, finalizing his master’s in international economics a decade later, would no doubt have disagreed.
As in many other policy arenas, Layton was early to reach a controversial conclusion later seen as common sense. Several Asian governments clamped on tight capital controls in the wake of their fiscal crisis in the 1990s and fared much better than those that allowed capital to undermine their currencies and markets. Limits on shorting currencies and bank stocks, taxes on derivatives trading and forced disclosure of multinational currency transfers are all today conventional tools. The Harper government is now redoing foreign investment rules.
Those who remember it say that the rhetoric of the thesis is dated, and the economics somewhat shallow. For many liberals and social democrats of his generation, the nuances of how to manage a mixed market economy, especially one locked into the largest capitalist engine in the world, held little interest. Unlike European social democrats of the 1970s and 1980s, few Canadian progressives grappled sincerely, let alone successfully, with the challenge of nurturing a progressive society in an open trading economy. Until the sudden end of the golden era of 1945 to 1973 and the first oil shock, progressives were comfortable to keep building out the welfare state, secure in the knowledge that the economic pie would keep expanding. It remains a gap in progressive program and policy in many places to this day.
One of the steepest growth paths Layton trod was his move from this simplistic economic-left nationalism to a deeper understanding of the challenges of building high-value employment in a open market economy. One of the several tragedies that Layton’s premature death inflicts is the loss of a leader able to move many progressive voters to a more sophisticated and pragmatic economic policy agenda.
Layton recognized that the issues of governance were more complex and the solutions more frustratingly difficult during his years on Toronto city council. As leader, he turned increasingly to the tough fiscal discipline of Manitoba and Saskatchewan New Democratic governments, engaging in searching dialogue with their leaders, especially Roy Romanow and Allan Blakeney. He was training to govern.
As a teacher at Ryerson in the 1970s, Layton avoided economics, focusing on the emerging urban activism then sweeping North American cities. It was a thrilling time in Toronto civic politics, with “tiny perfect mayor” David Crombie leading the charge against the hollowing out of the downtown core, and a generation of activists laying the foundation of later victories on homelessness, social housing and transit.
Layton taught trainee journalists how to cover the new municipal activists, and young urban planners how to fight development excess, and offered courses on new trends in transit, social housing and municipal finance. A charismatic, long-haired, young prof, he was stereotypical of the progressive activist young “professoriat” then sprouting at many Canadian universities. He and colleague Myer Siemiatycki created 48 hours (!) of radio programming as a full-year course for Ryerson’s pioneering Open University.
One of his male students at the time recalls a light-hearted, breezy, story-filled teaching style that captivated most students, but a professor whose overwhelming appeal to female students did not make him as popular with some male student competitors. The highlight of one year was Layton’s announcement of the birth of his daughter, Sarah, and his glowing affection and then proud circulation of baby photos.
Layton always acknowledged the debt he owed to an extraordinary staffer, friend and ally, Dan Leckie. Leckie gets credit from most observers of that era for pushing Jack toward the relationship-focused, deal-making, net-working political leader he became. It was Dan’s soft, subtle political skill, first devoted to cleaning up Jack’s messes and later helping frame his successful decade as a consummate deal maker, that turned Layton from the dead end of activist blowhard to becoming one of the most successful opposition politicians of his generation.
His embrace of issues that include AIDS, First Nations economic development, same sex marriage, climate change, social housing and homelessness, cities as a central national issue, and renewable energy — among a much longer list — surely qualifies as visionary.
It was Dan who managed Layton’s courageous efforts in the mid-1980s to focus Toronto and the province on the rapidly rising AIDS death toll. A brave young community doctor, Phil Berger, a pioneer in AIDS treatment in North America, plotted for months with Leckie and Layton on how to push the city and Queen’s Park to respond more generously to the most serious public health crisis to hit the city since the plagues of polio and cholera generations before.
They had to fight lingering antigay attitudes in high places, anxiety from closeted gay men — some in high places — about the risk of backlash against the ferocity of their demands and a squeamishness among politicians and their staffs about a disease that was, after all, about sex.
In greasy Chinatown restaurants, in committee rooms and private homes, they hounded the city’s establishment into greater assistance for the victims of the plague and their friends, families and lovers. Not only were there no brownie points or political benefits to be had in this pioneering campaign, but Layton risked many friendships and the support of some older progressive allies who wished the subject would simply go away.
Some national media pundits liked to hammer Layton for his self-promotional style and his frequent and sometimes irritating rush to the nearest microphone. The knock on him at the point of his arrival in Ottawa was also that he was merely an urban activist with no credentials on national or international issues, especially economic.
Following Layton’s death, some sneered at the “visionary” title bestowed in so many eulogies. But, decades before today’s conventional wisdom developed, his embrace of issues that include AIDS, First Nations economic development, same sex-marriage, climate change, social housing and homelessness, cities as a central national issue and renewable energy — among a much longer list — surely qualifies as visionary. It may not be a conventional Canadian political vision, but it moved a generation to his banner.
Some leaders are born, some blossom later. Churchill was famously out to pasture permanently before hitting the peak of his career. Pierre Trudeau had scant real achievement before his 40th birthday and didn’t even enter politics until he was 46. David Lewis was a driver of Canadian social democracy before his 25th birthday. Layton falls somewhere in between.
Those who remember him from his teaching days are still stunned at the statesman who slowly emerged two decades later. His early colleagues on city council smile nostalgically at “Opposition Jack,” happier too often to be right rather than victorious, keen for righteous defeat.
In addition to Leckie, most point to Olivia Chow as the second powerful influence in his transformation from the champion of moral victories to the architect of real social change. Chow is a consummate networker and relationship builder, slowly building a path from school trustee to councillor to MP often against long odds. She was often more respected than loved, however, as a tough political operative who delivered to colleagues the hard political messages that Jack didn’t want to be associated with. She took down Tony Ianno, one of the toughest Italian Liberal machine politicians of his generation, several times, and then defeated his wife, not the achievement of someone without steely determination and a tough hide.
Some say she served as the yin to Jack’s pushy, unyielding yang. By the time of Leckie’s tragically young death in 1998, Olivia had replaced him as the strategic counsellor and political barometer for Layton. It was a powerful political partnership that some close to Layton struggled with.
She grew along with Layton, personally and politically. The transformation from the scrappy school trustee of the 1980s to the regal figure of silent but eloquent grief marching alone at the head of the funeral cortege was staggering. Her interview with Peter Mansbridge was a masterpiece for both: sage reflection on humanity, on sharing life and on exiting it with grace and courage. It felt like eavesdropping on a sombre conversation between friends sheltering from a quiet summer rain.
Jack Layton always had a certain charisma, along with the confidence of birth and upbringing. So it was not easy for Liberal and New Democrat competitors to see him dominate a room upon entry. His confidence could be seen as swagger, his eloquence as vain rhetoric. As a “Layton,” Jack had an ease with power and powerful leaders not common among many on the left. Some resented his skill at using his access to power and his comfort in any social setting. He moved easily from the stiff decorum of meetings with ministers to the wilder challenge of soothing an angry, disoriented homeless man.
Leadership is a curious quality. As with beauty, most people agree what it looks like when they see it. An essential ingredient of political life, it’s also frustratingly rare. It is easier to nurture a beautiful orchid than it is to train a successful political leader, unless the basic ingredients are already there. Jack Layton had those genes, but it was his intelligence, his deep listening ability and his choice of advisers that allowed those skills to soar.
Building a political party reduced to a shadow of its former glory is one of the toughest, most demanding jobs in public life. Morale and money are low, media lack of interest universal, and the survivors of defeat who remain are rarely the timber from which you can successfully rebuild. Stephen Harper’s predecessors had each failed, as had Jack Layton’s.
It is hard to remember that less than a decade ago the NDP was in single digits nationally, its premature eulogies being cheerfully circulated by its traditional enemies. The rump of the party was dominated, as rumps inevitably are, by a hard core of mainly aging white guys and a scattering of aging local riding queen bees, pining for the good old days. It was this very cracked chalice that Jack Layton inherited only eight years before vaulting the party into official opposition. Assembling one of the smartest teams of political staffers, recruiting some of the best young opposition MPs and focusing them on a constantly disciplined message, he rebuilt the NDP.
His achievement was crowned by the astonishing rout of the Bloc Québécois, which in one blow broke the NDP’s Quebec curse, brought a vast majority of Quebec voters back into federal politics and reshaped the Canadian political landscape. It is hard to overstate the magnitude of this upheaval. It has unhinged the souverainistes movement in Quebec, now cracking provincially. It has sent an enormous number of bright young Quebec MPs to Ottawa, with several stars already obvious among them.
And for Canada, most importantly, it has probably permanently crushed the cruel lie that centre-left Quebec voters must choose sovereignty over federalism, absent a progressive alternative, in federal politics. Federalism and social democracy had been star-crossed political partners in Quebec since the days of J.S. Woodsworth. Many of the pieces of Layton’s legacy, without Quebec, would be a significant life’s achievement.
But it is his success, as a native son, in giving Quebec voters a powerful new federalist choice and Quebec an important place in federal politics for the first time in a generation that is the mark of his statesmanship. He made the commitment to build a real party in Quebec from the day of his entry into federal politics, to the chagrin of some of his supporters, many with personal memories of political heartbreak in Quebec going back a generation. He delivered it in the conventional way: clear strategy and slow, patient hard work, combined with endless networking.
Many politicians — Brian Mulroney famously — have similar skill sets and worn-out Rolodexes, and the discipline to remember birthdays, weddings and retirements by the hundreds. Like Mulroney, a friend in later years, Layton was on the phone, often preceded by a BlackBerry note, with literally hundreds of Canadians, almost nonstop. Friends, journalists, political competitors, academics and business leaders were often stunned to pick up the phone and hear, “Hi, it’s Jack Layton here. Have you got a minute?”
A former speechwriter who hadn’t seen Jack in years got a call one night with the request, “Someone showed me this great piece you did a few years ago. You mind if I steal a few of your best lines?” Like writers everywhere used to having their material poached without notice or thanks, he was flattered at the request and left to reflect on what the call said about the man.
Jack listened carefully in these late-night sessions, and in chance encounters on his bike, and at social and political events. His positions on people and policy never moved far from an early conviction on right and wrong, but the path to get to victory sometimes took wide curves. For some on the left those curves were too wide — his recognition that working-class voters wanted governments to be tough on crime in their neighbourhoods caused some to quit the NDP. For those who watched with greater care his polestar never moved, simply his recognition that successful political journeys rarely follow a straight path.
The high point in his political growth before the 2011 campaign was his near victory after a very wide swerve in his political journey — the coalition battle of 2008. Brian Topp has written a compelling tick-tock account of those fascinating weeks in November, cheekily titled How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot. But for strategic reasons it is hardly a “tell-all”; key manœuvres and the role of discreet players weren’t revealed, left for a later memoir.
Those with a glimpse through the window during the first attempt at a parliamentary coup in Canada since King-Byng were collectively stunned at the carefully scripted game plan Layton followed, the ears that had been whispered in months in advance, the blocking manœuvres that had been anticipated and worked around, and the cool Machiavellian analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the various players to be revealed when the curtain was raised.
It is his success, as a native son, in giving Quebec voters a powerful new federalist choice and Quebec an important place in federal politics for the first time in a generation that is the mark of his statesmanship.
Had he had a political partner with a less enfeebled political infrastructure — the national Liberal Party at the time was a ghost ship manned by a delirious captain surrounded by a troop of loyalists so incompetent they could not operate a video camera — Canada would probably still be governed by its first peacetime coalition, about to seek reelection. The compelling math suggesting a merger on the centre left today collides with New Democrats’ still fresh memories of the stunning incompetence of one Liberal leader, followed by the naked treachery of his successor.
Jack in his role as the grand conciliator was far less harsh about the Liberals’ bungling than many around him. He was careful in the run-up to the 2011 campaign to keep his guns focused on the Conservatives and his offer to Canadians of New Democrats as a better alternative. He ignored the hapless Ignatieff campaign to the extent the media permitted. He knew the missteps of 2008 should not be used as an excuse to slam doors on future cross-party cooperation. He mostly ignored the amateur Liberal leader’s humiliating efforts to dodge the coalition bullet at the campaign’s launch. Some New Democrats wanted a guarantee that Ignatieff’s betrayal of the previous efforts could not be repeated. In the quiet cross-party planning for a new coalition that preceded the campaign, Liberals quietly dismissed the concern, acknowledging that Ignatieff’s view was not relevant; he would not be a decision maker following election night.
When history takes a sharp and unexpected turn it is impossible to resist the temptation to indulge in what-ifs. It is especially tempting in this case, as Layton and his party were weeks away from a dramatic new chapter. At least two developments that seemed secure only months ago are now questions. Layton would have confounded the skeptics about his ability to mould his young Quebec caucus into an impressive political machine. He’d done it before and he saw building a federal social democratic base in Quebec as his most important legacy.
He would also have pursued the path of cooperation with the Liberal Party. It would probably have been an exploration of cooperation rather than merger, at least at first. But he was an inveterate alliance builder as a politician. He knew the implacable arithmetic of three non-Conservative parties fighting over half the electoral pie. Now both the NDP and the Liberals are about to be thrust into the uncertainty of leadership battles. Until those races are decided — not for another 18 months in the case of the Liberals — it will be impossible to know. Each party under new leaders could take another sharp turn away from Quebec and each other.
As “le bon Jack,” Layton brought new grace and pride to the rough trade of politics, at a time when some were pushing it to new lows. As a cancer survivor he gave courage and comfort to millions of Canadian families waging the same struggle. As a Quebecer he opened new doors for an entire generation of voters in his native province, and across Canada. As a party leader he rebuilt social democracy as a political voice in Canada when many had pronounced it dead. It is a considerable legacy.