As Canada’s newspapers, airwaves and cyberspace swell with memories of Jack Layton it’s striking the sheer number of individuals – from all walks of life – who had a very personal experience with him. And I have my own, too.
My first encounter with Jack was at a retreat for environmental organizations working on a myriad of issues that intersected with the need to conserve Canada’s boreal forest. Jack was the keynote speaker and he did what he did best, he engaged and electrified his audience. It wasn’t just a canned speech, nor was it phony or simply catering to what he thought we wanted to hear. With his tie off and shirtsleeves rolled up he spoke for over an hour without notes, speaking passionately about his own personal experience paddling the Nahanni River and the politics of environmental conservation. Following his speech he milled about with us. But he wasn’t “working the room,” he was genuinely engaging with as many of us as he could, genuinely wanting to know who we were and what we did. As the night wore on his chief of staff had to literally drag him away.
My second encounter was much less direct but no less influential in shaping my perception of Jack. It occurred on an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Toronto and Jack was sitting behind me. Apart from a courteous greeting as we boarded I wasn’t able to chat with him, but I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation he had with his seatmate over the duration of the flight. Their conversation covered a wide range of topics and it was clear that while they agreed on some issues, they disagreed on others. I was struck by the extent to which Jack sought to understand his seatmate’s perspective, the depth of his knowledge on the issues and how he thought they could be solved, and the grace with which he accepted a contrary opinion. In both encounters Jack’s approach was personal, persuasive and principled – characteristics that are all too lacking in Canadian politics and political leadership. Without doubt he was a fierce partisan and a pragmatic political strategist, but he had a grounding in personal principles that kept things in check.
There is an abundance of fitting stories paying tribute to Jack Layton, but the following is a shortlist from my daily reading list of writers and pundits:
Layton’s impact on NDP will be deep and lasting – Chantal Hébert
Layton’s predecessors recall an energetic, generous leader – Stephen Lewis, Ed Broadbent & Bob Rae (compiled by Gloria Galloway & Jane Taber)
On the passing of a politician – Aaron Wherry
Remembering Jack Layton – Keith Boag on CBC’s The National
Jack Layton eschewed attacks in pursuit of greater good – Michael Valpy
Jack Layton ennobled politics – Globe editorial
I haven’t always agreed with his policies or, at times, his political strategy. And he and the NDP haven’t always won my vote. But throughout I have always had the utmost respect for Jack as a politician, leader and human. His family has asked that in lieu of flowers Canadians might consider making a donation to the emergent Broadbent Institute. My family will be doing just that in celebration of his commitment and success in making Canada a kinder, more caring country.
Re-reading John Allemang’s profile of Jack Layton from just a few short weeks after the 41st election is both a saddening and inspiring reminder of all that Jack was and, now in past tense, all that he could have become. Perhaps NDP MP Pat Martin summed it up best: Jack Layton may just be “the best prime minister Canada never had.”