Canada awoke on Monday to very sad news indeed. What had been feared when a physically diminished Jack Layton appeared at a press conference last month to announce a temporary health absence was, in fact, true: the man was deathly ill. Now he’s gone.
I did not know Layton well, but, as his constituent in Toronto and frequent supporter, I chatted and exchanged e-mails with him off and on for about a decade. I enjoyed his exuberance and admired his intelligence, energy and tenacity.
Politically Jack Layton was right about a couple of very important matters. First, he did not apologize for wanting to be Prime Minister. In a world where grown up countries regularly elect social democrats, and in a country with a history of competent NDP provincial governments, this should not have come as a surprise. Sadly, it was only at the tail-end of what would be his final, extraordinarily courageous and effective election campaign last spring, that Canadians seemed finally to weigh the proposition in earnest. The centerpiece of that success in making his party the Official Opposition in parliament reveals Layton’s other singular achievement as a party leader – Layton brought the NDP to Quebec, where he was born. In policy terms, this was an evident match waiting to happen – social democrats in Quebec were convinced by Layton to support his federalist party. That’s a credit to his sympathetic attitude to Quebec nationalism, his effective embrace of the French language and many years of persistent political effort. If the next NDP leader consolidates that link while continuing growth west of Quebec, Canada might yet see an NDP prime minister. If that were to happen, Layton’s historic legacy would be profoundly affirmed.
Ultimately, Layton successfully brought a left-leaning commitment to social and economic justice, to peace, to national reconciliation with Quebec and aboriginal peoples to the forefront of national politics. He made the NDP impossible to ignore.