Sometimes my path has crossed with a fellow pilgrim, but circumstances being what they are we never really connected except on occasion to pass. Jack Layton, Member of Parliament, Toronto city councillor, advocate for the homeless, the poor, the gay community, the environment and numerous other groups and causes was a fellow pilgrim to whom I feel greatly indebted.
I attended the Federal N.D.P. convention in Vancouver in June 2011 as a delegate. My brother John, who has been a long time activist in the N.D.P. was able to enter the convention hall before it officially opened and he scouted out some seats near the front of the assembly from where a few of us from the Island could participate and observe the events of the following three days of speeches, tributes and lively debates.
Occasionally at the table next to us Jack Layton and his wife and fellow MP, Olivia Chow, would come and sit to observe some of the proceedings. Always he was interrupted by delegates who would stop to wish him well or to have a photo taken with him. He was always busy and while he was within a few feet from where I was sitting I never had the opportunity to speak with him personally. One photo taken by my brother John captured me sitting behind Jack.
I actually only spoke to Jack once – at some rally in Toronto. We spoke of a mutual friend, Dan Leckie, a former Toronto Board of Education trustee and city councillor, who died way too young at the age of 48. Dan was more than a biking enthusiast – he had a passion for using the bicycle and making the bicycle his primary mode of travel. I don’t know if it was Dan who influenced Jack or Jack who influenced Dan but moving about in downtown Toronto by bicycle became on of their trademark images. I knew Dan from our CIASP experience in Mexico in the summer of 1969.
On many other occasions I would see Jack Layton and Olivia Chow at many of the rallies and marches for progressive causes or occasions in Toronto. Way before it was fashionable or hip, Jack took positions on behalf of those who were dispossessed or marginated such as the gay/lesbian community. He was a co-founder of the “white ribbon campaign” – focused on helping men realize that they were the “problem” in the issue of violence against women. I tried to introduce the white ribbon for the men on staff at an all-girls school where I taught at the time but without success. I came late to many of these causes – as I was slowly being deprogrammed from my near cult-like existence up to 1980.
Jack died much too young at the age of 61 when he was at the pinnacle of his career as a politician and when he brought the New Democratic Party to the position of Her Majesty’s official opposition in the Canadian Parliament. The crucial importance of this role could not be more acutely needed at a time when the Conservative Party achieved a majority status in parliament and was set to implement the “Reform” agenda that was at the core of what used to be the “Progressive Conservatives”. After almost five years without an official opposition, for the Liberal party had assumed the role of puppet opposition voting with the government on nearly every major issue, Parliament needed an informed and well disciplined opposition to hold the government to account.
Jack leaves a caucus of 102 New Democratic Members of Parliament, many of whom are learning as they go. The New Democratic Party has a constitution and party policies which bind the leader and members on most national and international issues. Jack brought to leadership a personality that saw the common threads between the different causes and movements. Without a doubt the “cruel” death of Jack will leave a void so very difficult to fill. It would be a mistake to try to fill it – for all that was Jack Layton can simply not be duplicated. New leadership will need to be encouraged, promoted and supported that can benefit from the spirit of his leadership style.
After his death, Olivia and the family released a letter crafted by Jack with support from those close to him in his final weeks. In his eulogy for Jack, Stephen Lewis referred to this letter as “a manifesto for social democracy” – invoking the radical origins of the CCF party as the party that would speak for the working poor and the needy. Said Stephen Lewis: “He wanted, in the simplest and most visceral terms, a more generous Canada.”
Jack Layton was everything of a politician – there is no doubt about that – but he was a dreamer who believed in making possible the unthinkable. His final letter, clearly his testament and spirit poured out onto paper in his vanishing days, speaks not only to those who loved and respected him as leader of the social democratic party in Canada, but to all Canadians.
“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 of 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. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done. 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.” (Jack’s letter dated August 20, 2011 – http://www.ndp.ca/letter-to-canadians-from-jack-layton)
What speaks to me strongest about Jack Layton is a theme I have touched before. Jack was all about inclusivity. The people he reached out to help – not from a paternalistic posture but through solidarity and kindness – were those who were excluded from full participation in society or full enjoyment of the richness of our beautiful country. He was an environmentalist – and perhaps this is a failure of communication or perhaps the intrusion of party politics that this message of love of the planet which was certainly a part of Jack but simply did not get out there. As a result there was a need for something more explicitly “green” which comes in opposition to the social democratic movement rather than as a force within. (Perhaps I digress .. or lament)
Stephen Lewis, perhaps one of the few Canadians who has literally become a world respected statesman and voice of the suffering and advocate for justice, gave one of the eulogies at Jack Layton’s memorial. He was a close personal friend and his voice was filled with emotion and grief as he delivered a most eloquent and finely directed message about Jack and his contribution to Canada and the political process.
“Jack simply radiated an authenticity and honesty and a commitment to his ideals that we now realize we’ve been thirsting for. He was so civil, so open, so accessible that he made politics seem so natural and good as breathing. There was no guile. That’s why everybody who knew Jack recognized that the public man and the private man were synonymous. … And if there was one word that might sum up Jack Layton’s unabashed social democratic message, it would be generosity. He wanted, in the simplest and most visceral terms, a more generous Canada.” (Stephen Lewis – http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/08/27/ndp-statesman-stephen-lew_n_939139.html)
Jack had asked his friend, Rev. Brent Hawkes, to lead his memorial. The Rev. Brent Hawkes is another of those great Canadians who has pulled so many of us into those uncomfortable zones where others are suffering and neglected. His eulogy is worth reading over and over again – it can be viewed on YouTube. The Rev. Brent Hawkes among many beautiful and insightful thoughts included these words:
“Jack was clear that there were two things that were very much more important.
The first was the goal to make life better and not to leave anyone behind. What changes need to be done, what actions need to be taken, was the goal of making Canada a better country. That was important. The goal to inspire us and hold us together. Whether the goals were big goals, like ending homelessness or the rights of transgendered people or getting HIV/AIDS medication to poor countries … Or whether they were little goals like helping your neighbour or picking up litter or turning off a light. Yes, making life better for others.
And the second thing that was crucially important is how we are with each other as we do the work. What are the values that will guide us? Caring for each other, forgiving each other, listening to each other, really hearing, taking the extra time to hear. To really hear the hopes and dreams, respecting each other, staying optimistic even when the disappointments come, optimistic even when the defeats come and optimistic even when disease visits the first time or the second time. … It is leaving every situation better because you were there and every person there because they met you. It’s about how we care for each other. Whether our hometown is Hudson, Ont. or Hudson, Que. We’re across this country and across the aisles in Parliament.” (from the eulogy by Rev. Brent Hawkes)
I too, like millions of Canadians, mourn the passing of Jack Layton. We fear the unknown as we had so much hope in his leadership and his ability to build on the fantastic success in the last federal election that was no doubt largely due to the integrity and goodness of “le bon Jack” as he was known in Quebec.
I find it difficult to close this entry with my own words – afraid that I simply cannot express my admiration and respect for Jack Layton in words that are capable of doing him justice. So I will use some of the thoughts of Rev. Brent Hawkes:
“When all of the talking is done, when all of the tributes are done, when the chalk is washed on the concrete at City Hall, when our crying finally stops, the legacy of Jack Layton will not be in how much power you have, it will be in how all of us exercise our personal power for a better world. It will be in our actions and how we take those actions together. Yes, bring your passion but also bring your compassion. Yes, bring your agendas of what you want to accomplish, but also bring a commitment about how we can accomplish that together. Yes, bring your seriousness about serious issues but also have fun – sing together and pick up a harmonica once in a while. …Over the next few years, we might not be able to say, ‘Hi Jack. How’s Olivia doing?’ But you can say, ‘Hi Jack. How are WE doing?’ ”
For a very different insight I invite you to read the reflection by Matthew Remski in his blog at http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/?p=1270, titled “jack layton, the giving body, the anatomy of empathy, the fire, the light”. Matthew provides a view that most of us with our western “optics” (our western lenses) would miss because of our estrangement from our own bodies and the messages that the body continues to send out.