A prairie dog farewell to an honest politician
On Monday, Aug. 22, NDP leader Jack Layton passed away after a second bout with cancer. Our writers share their thoughts on the loss of one of Canada's most beloved public figures.
Jack Layton passed away early this morning. He was 61.
This is not the news I wanted to wake up to. Gadhafi's ouster, market instability: that was supposed to be my Monday morning read. Not the death of one the best people in Canadian politics.
Nobody should die at 61.
Carle, Whitworth and I interviewed Layton when he passed through town back in early 2010. Have to admit that going in I was pretty ambivalent about Jack - didn't like his chances in an election, always felt he wasn't bold enough in the vision he'd laid out for the NDP. I came away from the interview thoroughly impressed by his passion and his political savvy. He was a leader I could get behind.
Jack Layton was like all of my favourite bands: better live than recorded. /Paul Dechene
Jack And Grant
Flash back over 30 years. I'm a youngish reporter covering the Alberta legislature in Edmonton for The Calgary Herald. At that time, Peter Lougheed was the undisputed king of Alberta and his Progressive Conservative Party, which had come to power in 1971, had an iron-fisted grasp on power in the province, winning huge majorities in 1975, '79 and '82 - and then beyond, right up to the present, under other, less able, leaders. In the late '70s and early '80s, the Lougheed PCs all but owned the legislature, with four tired Socreds carrying on as official opposition and one New Democrat - Grant Notley - waving the banner of social democracy in very inhospitable territory.
I couldn't help but think of Notley when I heard the news of Jack Layton's death.
For over a decade Notley carried the flag for the NDP all by his lonesome as the sole member of the party in the legislature, until he was joined by a colleague in 1982. He was killed in a plane crash in 1984 and two years later, in the 1986 election, the party had its Alberta breakthrough, electing 16 members and catapulting into Official Opposition. Notley wasn't there to enjoy the victory, but there was no question but that he had laid the groundwork for it. In some ways, it was reverberations from his death, which hit Alberta hard, that tipped the balance for the party two years later.
Lougheed, a consummate politician, was a fine premier, but by 1979, when I started covering Alberta politics, his party was already entrenched, his regime getting stale.
What made going to work every day at the Leg consistently exciting was Grant Notley, a one-man whirlwind of clear-eyed ideas and articulate opposition who turned every session of Question Period into something worthwhile. There was no grandstanding with Notley - his research was always impeccable, and he asked real questions. There was something indefinably special about the man that made him liked and respected by most Albertans, regardless of their political leaning - he was the best opposition politician I had the opportunity to report on, probably the best I've seen in many years of either covering politics or observing the circus from afar.
Notley's sudden death was felt all over Alberta - even Albertans who wouldn't have dreamed of voting NDP were saddened by the loss. And a quarter century later, when the Herald ran a poll to select "Alberta's Greatest Citizen," Notley wound up in the top 10 along with the likes of Lougheed, Grant MacEwan and Nellie McClung (Lanny McDonald also made the list, but not Gretzky).
It's premature to speculate how Jack Layton might fare in a "greatest citizen" survey 25 years from now, or to guess whether the breakthrough he helmed in last fall's election was his greatest achievement, or whether further NDP breakthroughs, at least partly attributable to his efforts at party building, are still in the offing.
Either way, Layton, like Notley - and like Tommy Douglas, the greatest New Democrat of them all - was a one-of-a-kind man whose reputation for integrity, character and courage will long outlive him. /Dave Margoshes
Un Câlin Pour Le Québec
I remember being at a party in Montreal in the mid-'90s when a francophone woman came up to me, smiling. "You're from Saskatchewan," she said, and hugged me. "I'm in the NDP," she said.
I imagine there were a lot of scenes like that in the 15 or so years since then, small acts of reaching out from that peculiar Canadian political loneliness, born of regionalism and the blunt instrument of our parliamentary system. With its large population and the like-mindedness of its people, only Quebec can get what it wants. And this time, it wanted Jack. Everyone who ran for office, everyone who worked the campaign, everyone who voted NDP did so not only for its progressive ideals - they had those covered by the Bloc Quebecois - but for Jack.
There will be all kinds hugging going on among Quebec's NDP over the next week, just as lonely and wistful as it was back then.
To that woman, from so long ago: Saskatchewan is thinking of you. /Carle Steel
The last time I saw Jack Layton, I was standing in a throng of 1,300 cheering people in downtown Montreal. We were attending a 2011 NDP campaign rally. Earlier that afternoon we'd all lined up around the block and down the street, hands jammed in our pockets on a brisk spring day, waiting to enter the Olympia Theatre - a venue both known and suited for rock shows. Layton's bus took up a substantial amount of Ste. Catherine St., and we craned our necks to catch a glimpse of the venerable leader, the same as we would for the frontman of a band we were dying to see.
Once inside, we gulped beers and watched the opening acts - an all-girl jazz trio covering Velvet Underground and a rowdy pirate-folk act. It seemed so surreal: we were at a political rally for the NDP where young adults weaved through the crowd, raising their cups in frothy, wild salutes. This was very much a party, and I was having the time of my life.
And then Layton entered the theatre. The crowd erupted, the room was awash in a sea of orange and green signs, and French and English slogans reverberated throughout the room. This was our rock star.
When he spoke, he showed a cool intelligence laced with charisma, a quick tongue and an unflinching belief that we could be better. And I, along with 1,300 revelers, believed it. So too, clearly, did so many other citizens of Canada.
We were rooting for you, Jack. /Chris Morin
My observations of Jack Layton usually came through a telephoto lens. In front of a crowd, speaking fervently about the topic of the day, on the campaign trail or otherwise, he projected the persona of a caring, intelligent individual who truly believed this country could be a better place.
On one occasion, prairie dog scored an intimate interview with him. The location was a popular coffee shop in downtown Regina and they wanted me along to take photos. For a while, the one-on-one (plus three or four a side) was pretty normal and Jack was "on point" for most of it. But it was the occasions where he slipped into digressions that were most revealing. When he wandered, he showed his true passion, his insight and his emotional attachment to the topic. He showed he really understood, or at least was trying very hard to understand, the problem at hand.
Other politicians seem to be reading from scripts, bad actors on a cheap stage, shilling for their party… plastic stand-up dolls spouting platitudes to assuage the unwashed masses. Jack didn't give me that impression. When you actually met the man, shook his hand and listened to what he had to say, you believed him.
I'm pretty sure, if roles were reversed, Jack wouldn't have started talking about Afghanistan during his remarks about Stephen Harper's death. /Darrol Hofmeister
Football, Toronto And A Reporter's Regret
A couple of years ago, I got a phone call from a young-ish Saskatchewan NDP MLA. Was this true, this story about Jack Layton and Burt Lancaster? The MLA asked.
It was. I was the reporter. Around New Year's 2002, Layton, his wife, Olivia Chow, and his campaign worker, met up with me at the Country Squires restaurant in Fort Qu'Appelle where I was editing the town's weekly newspaper.
I can't remember what all we talked about, except towards the end I tongue-in-cheek thanked him for my first date on New Year's Eve in years, saving me from watching one of the dozens of American college football bowl games.
"Ah, yes, football," Layton said. "I remember being a kid in Toronto and going down to watch the Argos play at Exhibition Stadium, and there was that great Saskatchewan Roughrider quarterback, what was his name… Burt Lancaster? No, Ron, that was it…"
That week I wrote a column about how Layton was nothing but another Toronto ward-heeler, unable and unwilling to connect with voters out of the CN Tower's sight. I used the Burt Lancaster quote as an example.
Eight and a half years later, that's one column that I would like to rewrite.
Unlike many other Canadian political leaders, at least Layton paid attention to what was going around him in the world, not trying to rewrite the truth to fit his narrative. As the former president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Layton knew more about the problems facing both urban and rural municipalities than probably most Saskatchewan rural RM reeves. And that was in keeping with a guy who was ambitious for all the right reasons, because he believed that nobody wins unless everybody wins.
If the worst thing about Jack Layton was a slip of the tongue, mistaking a great and noble Hollywood actor for a great and noble football player, then he goes to his greater reward a far better man than I'll ever be. /Stephen LaRose
I Liked Jack
I met Jack Layton twice, both times for prairie dog interviews. The first was at the old Danbry's during his run for the national NDP leadership, which he captured in January 2003. It was probably during the same trip Rosie just described. The second was in early 2010 in Atlantis coffee shop's stuffy-but-cozy bank vault meeting room (yes, the interview Darrol was at, and the one the photo for this article comes from). Both times I was impressed by Layton's intelligence, honesty, charisma and commitment to the same things I care about: a rationally run and successful country that invests in its citizens. I'm pretty sure we were on the same page on most issues.
Away from personal meetings, Layton used to deliver stiff, phony-seeming public speeches with affected hand gesticulations. His lame "working families" mantra in debates and speeches drove me bananas. But in the last few years he seemed to have figured out that his key to success was to just be himself and we saw more of that. The result? Landmark electoral success. And now, incredible public grief. I'll miss him. /Stephen Whitworth
Jack Layton: 1950-2011
Jack Layton was born in Montreal on July 18, 1950, close to the middle of the year in the middle of the century. His political pedigree extends back to his great-grand-uncle William Steeves who was a Father of Confederation. His own father, Robert Layton, served in Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative cabinet in the 1980s. In a nearly 30-year career in municipal and federal politics, Layton built on his family's record for public service, establishing a reputation as a principled man deeply concerned about the welfare and future of his country.
Layton, who had a PhD in political science from York University, was first elected to Toronto City Council in 1982. During his time in municipal politics, he championed many progressive causes, and in the late '80s was a key figure in a coalition of reform-minded councilors who held majority control of council.
Following an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 1991, Layton spent three years outside politics, founding an environmental consulting firm and working in academia. In 1994 he was elected to Metropolitan Toronto Council and assumed a high-profile role in the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
Layton was unsuccessful in two previous attempts to win a federal seat for the NDP in the 1993 and 1997 elections, but he won when it counted - in January 2003 he was elected leader of the party at a national convention in Toronto. Without a seat in Parliament himself, Layton was still an effective critic of the Paul Martin-led Liberal government.
In three successive elections in 2004, 2006 and 2008, Layton recorded strong support for his leadership in polls, but that failed to translate into electoral success for the NDP. In last May's election, though, the NDP enjoyed a breakthrough, more than doubling its previous high in seats with 103, and for the first time in party history becoming Official Opposition.
Less than two months later, Layton, who had previously waged a prominent battle against prostate cancer, announced he would be taking a temporary leave of absence to fight a second unspecified cancer diagnosis. He died at home on Aug. 22, leaving to mourn his wife, Olivia Chow, and two children from his first marriage (Mike and Sarah), along with millions of Canadians.
Rest in peace, Mr. Layton. /Gregory Beatty