I'm a week late in posting any reflection on what has been the biggest news story in Canada over the past seven days. For my non-Canadian readers, last Monday morning we learned of the death of the Honourable Jack Layton, Leader of the Official Opposition, Member of Parliament for Toronto Danforth and Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada.
In the Canadian system (like other Commonwealth countries but unlike the United States), the Leader of the Opposition is effectively the Prime Minister in waiting. Indeed, in Westminster style democracies, the Leader of the Opposition and his/her leading Parliamentary colleagues are referred to as the Shadow Cabinet.
Jack had just led the New Democratic Party to a major electoral breakthrough when Canadians went to the polls less than four months ago. For the first time, his party (my party) would be the second largest party in our federal Parliament - and hence the presumptive government in waiting.
The New Democrats - like the UK Labour Party, the Spanish Socialists or the German Social Democrats - are part of the Socialist International. For my American readers, this means there really is no party quite like this one in your electoral experience.
In Canada, the Leader of the Opposition has an official residence called Stornoway. It's actually nicer than the Prime Minister's digs at 24 Sussex Drive. Jack and his wife (and fellow MP), Olivia Chow, moved into Stornoway several weeks after the election. In the end, Jack spent only one night there.
In July, he announced that he was temporarily stepping down from his leadership responsibilities, having been diagnosed with cancer. He declared he'd be back for the fall session next month. But the honest observer had to wonder. Unlike his previous bout with prostate cancer, this new cancer had left Jack looking thin and pale. I actually heard the announcement before I saw the footage, and what struck me more than anything was his voice. The strong voice of the passionate leader had been replaced by the voice of a very old man, even though Jack was only a decade older than me.
The morning Jack died, his family released a letter he had written in the previous few days. A multi-layered epistle to the people of Canada, it held out a hope for a new style of politics that is pure Jack Layton:
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.
Apart from a few crackpots on the hard right, the country has been in mourning. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a decent pianist regretted never having had that oft-discussed jam session with Jack, a decent guitarist. Tens of thousands paid their respects in Ottawa and Toronto and on the route between - including where it passed out of its way into Quebec.
The state funeral tomorrow, officiated by Brent Hawkes of the Metropolitan Community Church, will include a blessing from the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, a eulogy by former UN Ambassador Stephen Lewis and music by former Parachute Club lead singer Lorraine Segato and former Barenaked Lady Stephen Page.
I worked on Jack's first campaign for city council in Toronto - where the media kept declaring his opponent elected, even though Jack was in the lead throughout, only changing their tune once all the polls were reported. I supported Jack's transformation of the federal party's culture from one which saw defeat as noble and electoral success as morally suspect to one which understood that moral victories are neither. But my best memory of Jack is one time last year when we spent time after a public event comparing Blackberry pictures of our grandchildren.
Almost lost in the Layton coverage was news of the death of former NDP MP Simon De Jong. Simon had been an influential mentor in my early days in and around politics. In addition to things political, he taught me how to use chopsticks, as well as some other thing involving cigarette papers.
Simon spent the first three years of his life in a Japanese concentration camp, his father being a Dutch colonial official in Indonesia. Simon once confided to me that he weighed less when he left the camp at age three than when he entered the camp as an infant. It is almost certain that, had the war lasted just a few weeks longer, Simon would have died of malnutrition. Ironically, he was an anti-nuclear activist whose life was probably saved by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Only twice did I ever heard him make public reference to his experience of the camps: once in his convention speech when he ran for the party leadership in 1989 (at the insistence of his campaign manager) and once when speaking to a military parade marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the war.
Simon also has the distinction of having won re-election in Regina Qu'Appelle in 1993 despite having lost every poll. He lost all the urban polls to the Liberals and all the rural polls to the Reform Party - but finishing second in every poll gave him enough votes to win.
Following a video tribute to Jack from This Hour has 22 Minutes (a satirical comedy show roughly comparable to The Daily Show) I'll close with another excerpt from Jack's letter. I ask that you remember these public servants - these friends of mine - and their families in your prayers in the coming days.
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.