Commentary  “We’re a great country, but we can be a better one”

How Jack Layton reshaped Canadian politics

On August 22, 2011, Canada lost one of its most respected voices, and McGill lost one of its greatest inspirations. The death of the Honourable Jack Layton, the man who was the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition for a regrettably short period of time, leaves a dearth of integrity and optimism on our national stage. For me, Layton’s passing was a catalyst for the recognition of my own aspirations, both as a student of political science and, more importantly, as a Canadian.

But how does a man that I’ve never met, never heard speak, and never even voted for affect me in such an intimate way? Why does the death of a man whom the National Post’s Christie Blatchford derogatorily called “a 24/7 politician who was always on,” make me ask myself not only what it is I want to be, but also how I can take part in actively shaping the country I want.

As the vocal, long-time opponent of the Conservative and Liberal parties, Jack Layton and the NDP continually represented the voice of the voiceless. Layton and his party stood behind those mercilessly disenfranchised by Canada’s single-member district plurality electoral system. But as the consistent third wheel in federal politics, Jack Layton and the NDP were able to stay honest to their goals and to keep their ears open to their constituents.  Last spring, when Layton moved into Stornaway, the residence of the official opposition leader, many of us were forced to take a meaningful look at the NDP’s policies and integrity.

In the mix of eulogies and commentary on Layton’s passing, the words of Stephen Lewis, former Ontario NDP leader, obliterated any dissent on Layton’s rationale for being in politics: “he insists that we’re a great country, but we can be a better one.” For a young Canadian, the desire, nay, the obligation, to make this country better, is the cri de couer that injects me with the vigour to make something not only of myself, but also of my country. Jack Layton demonstrated that politics could be about convictions and ideas instead of politicking and half-measures. He demanded that politics be an engaging conversation, precluding angry diatribes and porous monologues. The pleasure of seeing an honest person do an honest day’s work in a profession so fallen from grace is like seeing a light pierce through the blackness of a mineshaft. It is only too sad that his mandate was validated before it could be thoroughly applied.

Nevertheless, the knowledge that politics can be done in an authentic and deeply personal way is inspiring. Layton’s ability to seamlessly negotiate the personal and political has pushed me to realize the unifying ideals of social democracy. They provide everyone with an equal voice, allowing the country to come together behind a progressive agenda. More importantly, he showed that these ideals can be implemented without sacrificing one’s self respect or beliefs.

Some may critique Layton’s populism, arguing that he attracted a cult of personality without any navigable public policy underpinning his own demagoguery. Blatchford certainly has no problem dismissing the outpouring of grief by Canadians of all political stripes as “mawkish” and pedestrian (in the same article, she also tries to use the death of a six year old girl to prove a point). As a Westerner, I can see this most clearly in the naivete of reopening the constitutional debate in Quebec. But if his populism swept the Bloc Quebecois from relevancy on the national political scene, I cannot see it as a negative.

Rather, the populism embodied by Layton is populism at its best. It is, without fail, inclusive. He wanted every single Canadian to feel like they were an integral part of this country. This extended to members of the queer community, exemplified through his longstanding support for marriage equality as well as his early campaign for support for individuals with HIV/AIDS while on Toronto City Council. Furthermore, Assembly of First Nations National Chief, Shawn Atleo, called Layton a “remarkable and inspirational leader for all peoples” on his passing. Jack Layton’s populism was based on the idea of being popular throughout Canada, with every Canadian. That is a populism I can live with. But it’s more than that – it’s makes our country one that I can proudly live in.

Jack Layton, born in an affluent Anglo suburb of Montreal, the great-grandnephew of a father of Confederation, and son of a cabinet minister, became the most respected voice in opposition in at least a decade. He didn’t do it with tricks and half-truths but through honest work and sound convictions. His passing is nationally mourned because of the ideas he represented, and we must rise to the challenge he left us. We need to shape the national dialogue into an inclusive exchange of ideas and offer to those around us only the best in ourselves. I, for one, hope to rise to the occasion.