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Archive for August, 2011

In May of 2011, not long after surviving prostate cancer, and still mending after a hip replacement, Jack Layton, the charismatic New Democratic Party leader, accomplished what to many seemed impossible. He led his party to the level of Official Opposition, winning over Quebec separatists, and thereby achieving a record number of seats in parliament. NDP supporters were euphoric.

Two months later, shockingly gaunt and weak, he announced that a new form of cancer had taken hold of him, and that he was taking a leave from his position in order to fight it.

On August 22, just four weeks later, he passed away, surrounded by his loved ones and closest colleagues. Shortly after his death, a letter was released, written by him just two days earlier (http://bit.ly/netnCX). Moved by his message, the entire country united in an unprecedented show of grief.

Social media gathered hundreds of thousands of supporters, all asking that Layton be honoured in special ways. Across the country, people “Left their Porchlight on for Jack,” “Left a Burning Candle in the Window for Jack,” participated in “Chalk for Jack,” covering the concrete at Mel Lastman Square with messages to the man they admired so much. Orange lights, the colour of the NDP party, lit up Niagara Falls and the CN Tower at night.

He received a state funeral.

Since then, many journalists have asked “What is it about Jack Layton’s death that creates such passion and collective grieving?” After all, not everyone agreed with his politics or his passionate rhetoric during his three decades in politics. I believe there are several reasons for this surprising display of emotion.

The first that come to mind are his patriotism and his “generousity of self,” his willingness to get involved in areas that other politicians chose to ignore. He was approachable and emotionally engaged in every issue he tackled, and was a ray of hope for those struggling with poverty and homelessness. Unlike so many of our politicians, who seem emotionally detached from anything other than heated cabinet debates, he truly seemed to care.

Jack Layton had our back.

For years, there’s been talk of the apathy of today’s youth. Few have faith in politicians and the political process. They’ve “opted out.” They listen with wistfulness to stories recalling the activism and idealism of the sixties, but are often too jaded to believe that can happen again. Jack Layton challenged that belief and inspired so many of our Canadian youth. Years from now, that may be recognized as his greatest legacy.

On a personal level, Jack Layton did even more for me, and I suspect for many others growing up in the sixties and early seventies. He reminded me of who I was forty years ago. His principles, his passion, his belief in a better way, his concern for the disenfranchised and respect for humanity itself – those were the ideals I worked hard to emulate back then. I was young and hopeful and believed I could make a difference.

Somehow, as it does with many people, that idealism and energy faded over the years. Raising a family and working to make ends meet took most of my attention away, but not enough to miss the gradual changes taking place in our country – the focus on finances over people, the hostile and kneejerk response to anyone needing our help. Others set the changes in motion, but some, like Mike Harris, set them in stone. Like many of our youth, I’m afraid I chose to “opt out” rather than remain a teacher under Mike Harris, and with the subsequent election of federal, provincial and municipal politicians, my despair grew.

For a while, Jack Layton changed that. I saw more than a politician. I saw a human being – one who hid his private pain behind a moustached smile so he could lead his party to official opposition status, and who in the days before he died, still reached out and showed concern for others in a letter. As the NDP leader, he reminded his party to forge ahead, saying that the true power was always within them, and that his death wouldn’t change that. As a fellow Canadian, he urged people, young and old, to have hope in Canada’s future, to work to make it happen. As a cancer patient, he protected his fellow sufferers by keeping the details of his illness private, and encouraged them to have hope. His final words will always resonate with me:

“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.”

How many other politicians have ever spoken to Canadians before dying, and in such a manner? Jack Layton was a remarkable man – a tireless, principled political leader, and patriotic Canadian. And for those of us who felt a familiar fire awaken in ourselves because of his shining example, his loss feels very personal.

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