Some news is nothing but bad, and some events just utterly heartbreaking.
When Canada awoke Monday morning to learn that our most respected and popular political leader had died hours earlier of cancer, the whole country went into mourning. We have lost much in his death.
By the time the last federal election was over most Canadians, including many who did not actually vote for him, saw that Jack Layton — a former Toronto city councilor and the leader of the federal New Democratic Party — would not only make a good prime minister, but was clearly on his way to winning the position in a future ballot. That eventuality was practically the only source of hope visible in Ottawa’s degraded political scene.
Of course, Layton’s death is foremost a private tragedy for his family and friends. Cancer has robbed them of a dearly beloved man — he was a son, a husband, a father and no doubt a cherished companion for many he had befriended in his lifetime. Their grief is also the country’s, but it’s sure to weigh heaviest on their shoulders.
Still, the cancer robbed Canada, too — robbed the country of someone who had the will and ability to set Canadian politics ahead on the path of common sense and compassion, who would have continued fighting against the forces of greed and avarice in our society and, as highest leader, could have restored Canada’s international reputation as a country that works for peace and for the improvement of the human condition and of the whole world.
However, Jack Layton wasn’t perfect and it would serve no purpose to overstate his qualities. Being a politician, he sometimes took stands for purely political reasons and this did not aid the growth of his party in places like, for example, Labrador — where, oddly, he never took the time to find out how local non-Liberals and non-Conservatives might look at the issues that affect their lives, notably the environmental cost of constructing a hydro megaproject in a near-pristine wilderness.
It seems even Jack was not above sacrificing votes in one riding to win them in another — or to irrevocably destroy a wonder of nature in order to partially satisfy Ontario’s voracious electricity demands. Layton was without doubt a Torontonian and, as such, he saw Canada’s future from a central, urban perspective.
Nevertheless, the point of the criticism is not to speak ill of the dead, but to demonstrate that Jack Layton had something that often seems missing in politicians these days: he was capable and maybe even eager to learn and evolve. He was a Torontonian, yes, and for much of his career did not appear to know how to connect with the fringes of the country, but as everyone witnessed last May he proved himself more than able to do just that.
Under his increasingly effective leadership, the New Democrats not only swept the federal wasteland that was Quebec, but vaulted past the Liberals to become Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. About the only thing that stopped him from becoming leader of a governing coalition supported by 61 per cent of voters was Canada’s broken and apparently unrepairable electoral system.
Much was said to demonize the leader of the NDP and his policies during the federal election (and the smear campaign was unfortunately somewhat successful), but anyone thinking rationally could see that a Jack Layton government was not something to fear. If anyone would have been able to build a sustainable economy, a fair polity and an equitable society, it was Smiling Jack.
Now some might conclude that as events transpired, it may have been for the best that Layton did not actually win the highest political position in the land, but that’s just not true. Judging by what he did manage to achieve in his years, Layton would have done more good for Canada in a few short months than a lesser man could do in a thousand years.
Were that it was otherwise, but Jack Layton will now rival and perhaps supplant the late, lamented Robert Stanfield as the greatest prime minister Canada never had.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.