08.22.2011 09:09 AM

Layton: a loss to Canadian democracy

My mother is my one-person focus group. All of us who work in politics have one-person focus groups: the regular folks we turn to in order to get a “real person” take on the issues of the day.

My mom is mine. She is near eighty, and she lives alone in Kingston, Ont., where she is a artist. We talk twice a day – and, during the federal election campaign, I would regularly ask her what she thought about things. One day I asked her who she thought was the winner of the campaign.

“Oh, Jack Layton, dear,” she said, without hesitating. “Stephen Harper will win the government, but Jack Layton has won the election.”

This was before the “Orange Crush” phenomenon had taken hold, you see. Layton was doing well – and he was doing better than Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals – but nobody had yet foreseen that he would become the Leader of the Opposition, winning well over 100 seats, and making history in the process.

But my Mom, my one-person focus group, had decided he was the winner. “To fight through cancer, and to do what he is doing every day leaning on that cane, is just so remarkable,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I admire him very much.”

And so, as it turns out, did the nation. Whether you were a New Democrat or not, whether you were into politics or not, you could not help but be marvelling about Jack Layton’s extraordinary resolve and courage. By campaign’s end, all of us were watching him, trying to understand where he found the strength.

The NDP’s win, as per the popular consensus, was all about Jack Layton. It was all about him.

Nobody knew anything about NDP policy, or even the New Democratic team. None of that mattered. What mattered was this slender, moustachioed former Toronto councillor at the centre of campaign 2011 – the one who everyone liked more (in some cases a lot more) than Harper or Ignatieff.

Likeability, in politics, matters more than anything else. You either have it or you don’t. You can have money, and experienced staff, and all the trappings of modern politics. But if you aren’t likeable, you shouldn’t ever expect to win.

I started liking Jack Layton a few years back. He called me up, and said he wanted to get his hands on one of my books. I assumed it was one of the ones I’d written about politics, and said I would send it to him.

“No, I’ve got that one,” he said. “The one about music, the one about punk rock. I want to read that one.”

I laughed, and so did everyone I told the story to. Jack Layton was an unconventional politician. He made it work for him.

For his NDP – because it was his NDP – sad and bad times lay ahead. There is no possibility, none, that they can ever expect to maintain what they achieved with Jack Layton.

Nor can the party’s blasé dismissal of a union with the Liberals be allowed to remain unchallenged. Our democracy will suffer if the Harper government is not facing an effective Opposition. All of us – Stephen Harper included – need the NDP and the Liberals to consider the gravity of the moment, and abandon their pride and hubris. Now, more than ever, progressives need to come together for the good of Canadian democracy.

And make no mistake: that democracy has suffered a terrible, terrible loss with the passing of Jack Layton. The country will weep over this.

And, sure enough, when I came in to tell my mother about the news, she cried, too.

God bless you and keep you, Jack Layton. We will miss you, very much.

All of us.


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    Cath says:

    I’m unbelievably sad today WK. Sad at the loss of Jack Layton for all of the reasons your wrote about above but also for his family and his political family of which he fought so hard for.

    Sad compounded today for my town Goderich Ontario which you may have heard was devastated by a tornado last evening. One man, the same age as Jack Layton lost his life but my town that I’ve called home for 25 years has had it’s bones broken at its core. The number of heritage buildings damaged beyond repair and friends who I still can’t find has left me numb. For a town struggling through an economic downturn I can’t begin to put in to words what I’m feeling…..but I will eventually.

    I live just just outside of the hardest hit part of Goderich but it’s as if the tornado cut our town in half from west to east, using compass-like town SQUARE to travel up West Street, spin around the Square and head up East Street.

    Internet restored now but gas and cable down still.

    Our town’s bones may be broken but our heart is still beating. Rest in Peace Jack.

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    Ted H says:

    Jack was a cool guy, he had that down to earth connection to people. His stamina on the campaign trail last May was truly admirable. He brought the NDP to a historic high. However, unless the NDP can build on where he brought them and forge a durable constituency, his legacy so far to the Canadian people is a Conservative majority government.

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      Attack! says:

      Ugh. What an ill-timed and ugly, dishonest, ‘money and the ethnic vote,’ buck-passing sentiment that last statement was.

      Surely the CPC earned most of its votes, whether by hook or by crook, and just as surely, the LPC lost many of its votes due to its own missteps… not the least by the hubris of its leader refusing to prepare properly for the entirely predictable fateful attack in the debate about his attendance record.


      And although it is, of course, far too early to tell, at this point, the most important legacy of Mr. Layton would rather appear to be making a huge inroad to unifying the country by decimating the BQ.

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      smelter rat says:

      ted, do you work hard at being an asshole, or does it come naturally?

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        Ted H says:

        C’mon, you are both being very unfair and totally missing the point. Commenters below are saying they didn’t like the man and didn’t respect his policies. I say I admired him but suggest his political legacy so far is equivocal, yet I’m the asshole, go figure.

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          Attack! says:

          Let me break it down for you, then, Ted.

          You’re the one missing the point_s_:

          not only about it being in extremely poor taste to speak ill of the dead — particularly so soon after his passing, when his friends’, families’, and supporters’ sensibilities are at their highest,

          but also about it being such an ill-founded charge (and a serious one, coming as it does from you, a Liberal supporter, who likely regards aiding and abetting a Harper-CPC majority as a near treasonous offense) you’re levelling, in the first place.

          Not only is the verdict still very much out what his most important legacy is or will turn out to be — both now, four years from now, after the next election, and in the grander scheme of things — but it’s also HIGHLY debatable that the Conservative majority — and, by extension, the LPC rout — should chiefly be attributed to him, as opposed to a whole host of other persons and factors (like the one I mentioned: Ignatieff’s not having a good answer prepared for his HOC attendance issue in the debate, which, yes, was a ‘game-changer’ for the NDP*; his indignant stammering was more of an own-net goal, given his lack of preparation, than a feat of remarksmanship by Jack.


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            Ted H says:

            You are whacked, Attack. I didn’t speak ill of Jack, I said I admired him. His political legacy exists quite apart from the sadness of losing the man. I didn’t mention the dabate with Ignatieff, you did. Is that top of your mind? I didn’t even say if I considered a CPC majority desirable or not, you are the one spouting off about Liberals and Conservatives. From the viewpoint of Jack’s progressive supporters, maybe a CPC majority isn’t their preferred option. By voting non-confidence in the Martin government and a budget that was more progressive on behalf of ordinary Canadians than anything the CPC has put forward, Jack started Stephen Harper on his road to a majority government. That is his legacy to date, time will tell if his legacy expands to include an NDP government or strengthening of national unity vis a vis Quebec. Clear enough pal?

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            Attack! says:

            It’s clearly more evidence of a lack of insight: both about the historical record and about the meaning and motivations of your own statement.

            Why stop there, in late 2005, and place so much importance on that one non-confidence vote, when the Lib. Government was a dead man walking and its fall was inevitable?

            Martin sowed the seeds of his own destruction a year or two earlier, when he wouldn’t wait for the release of the A-G report to let Chretien wear it before usurping him, and when he called the Gomery Inquiry to really try to make him wear it, or even years earlier for not being more on top of the QC Lib. machinery and letting Adscam happen, in the first place.

            And why not acknowledge that Layton tried to undo that and restore the Libs to power and confine the CPC to a single, short-term minority via a coalition in 2008,

            but the Libs dropped the ball on that with their too-late-and-ill-suited for prime time home made-made video and the disastrous optics of letting Duceppe share the stage with them, and then they lacked the fortitude to press on, anyway, and left Layton at the altar?

            And don’t pretend — or lie to yourself as well as us — that saying Layton is chiefly responsible for enabling the CPC to rise to a majority was meant as anything other than a passive-aggressive insult to the man’s accomplishments and legacy.

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          Chamberlain says:

          In your defence, Ted, you are right, but your are wrong. Your timing could have been better.

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            Chamberlain says:

            Attack! — I am all in favour of the Liberals owning their mis-steps. And yes, that certainly includes how poorly the coalition was handled. The “But” in this is, Jack put his party’s ambitions ahead of what was in rectrospect best for Canada in voting to bring down Martin. But as they say, the rest is history.

            And perhaps you will agree that the coalition was motivated by the government’s intention to end the party subsidy, with Mr. Layton seeing his miscalculation and agreeing to a shot gun marriage, and that the coalition and Jack’s efforts of trying to stop Mr. Harper in the form of a coalition was closing the gate after the horse has left the barn.

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      Chamberlain says:

      His party has time, people and heroic inspiration. Expect the party to win the next election, “for Jack”.

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      W the K - No, not Warren says:

      C’mon guys, a man died today. Save it for tomorrow.

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        Phil in London says:

        Tomorrow is here!

        I think a lot of people are going to get all sweaty and bothered about what I am going to say but this is just one man’s opinion.

        Without Stephen Harper there woudl be no Jack Layton and without Jack Layton there would be no Stephen Harper.

        Now I don’t mean neither would be around but I do mean their contributions are linked to one another.

        Had Jack not been able to build his own party’s support over three elections there is little doubt in my mind there would still be a conservative if not a Liberal minority government today.

        In this past election every party lost seats to the NDP in Quebec, none were more severely punished then the Bloc but enough votes fell to the Conservatives to secure a few seats in that province to legitimize the majority.

        Elsewhere the NDP growth was more muted but for the most part at the expense of Liberals.

        Much of the conservative argument was elect us or a wobbly coalition. If Conservative support had not grown over three elections many Dippers may have preferred to vote Liberal as they had time and time again to prevent the feared right wing majority.

        Jean Chretien wisely saw the winning strategy of divide and conquer by pitting really all four other parties against each other he strengthened a base that may have otherwise have not held. He made many believe he was the only national alternative.

        Now please don’t try to read context into this next part, I am only using three forces to offer an analogy not in any way to align the three political parties in Canada with the WW2 major players. What Harper and Layton did was much like the western allies and the soviets did to the Germans.

        They came from both east and west and were united on their own fronts against a mutual enemy in the middle.

        With the help of Mssrs. Martin, Dion, Ignatieff and now Rae. These two foes were more often prepared to attack the middle than one another.

        Whether that middle strengthens with the loss of Jack Layton will be very interesting. However, if Jack were still around I would have loved to see how Harper and he would have worked. Would they have chosen an unstable truce like the West and the Soviets did or would they have chosen to battle winner take all with the Liberals whithering much like they did in England?

        The real challenge for the NDP is now to maintain focus on who can offer strong leadership and allow them to bury the middle taking as much of the spoils as they can.

        Liberals don’t like that kind of talk but I believe the two clear choices have chosen each other and were good for each other whether it was orchestrated as such or simply fell that way is for people smarter than me.

        I just think years from now the names Harper and Layton will be mentioned in the same sentence many times to describe how Canada was redefined while the Liberals slept. Most importantly they needed each other to get to where they are now. The deck is being reshuffled so we’ll see in the next few years how the cards get dealt.

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    Phil in London says:

    It is a big loss for the NDP, as WK says it was his NDP. There is a hell of a challenge for those left behind in his party to consolidate it’s gains of last election. Would have been hard with him around, I’d say it will be near impossible without him.

    Even those of us who hate his ideology loved Jack, we have no doubt he believed that he was building a better nation.

    He’ll be missed for always punching way above his weight class for sure.

    I’m still amazed with how sick Jack appeared before the writ that he didn’t find a way to prop up the Tories a little longer but it’s such bitter medicine for him and his following that his role as official opposition was cut short.

    Bless him

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    Finn says:

    Before we are political labels or citizens of a country, we are people first and foremost.

    Jack’s loss is a terrible blow to his family and that is sad.

    Jack’s politics were not mine but he did raise the level of debate and that’s never a bad thing.

    RIP Jack.

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      Argella says:

      What a wonderful reminder that we are, as you say, we are people first and politics second.

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    Lance says:

    My mother also died at 61 from cancer; I watched her deteriorate from it so when I saw Jack at that presser last month, I knew he was sicker than he was letting on.

    I never believed in his policies and never really liked or even respected him much. But for him to try and push through that presser, in full view of the public, with so much optimism knowing how sick he really was shows incredible heart. I only hope I can face my death with as much courage.

    R.I.P Jack. I may not have been a fan of your’s in life, but your courage and heart in the face of such an implacable enemy has made me rethink some things.

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    allegra fortissima says:

    Thank you, Jack, for making Canada a better place. We will not forget you.

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    MLukas says:

    A wonderful tribute…RIP Mr. Layton.

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    smelter rat says:

    “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” – J Layton

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      pomojen says:

      We are going to hear our great-grandchildren quoting this line one day.

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        Kev says:

        We can hope.

        I never had much use for Jack the politician, but did admire him, his committment, and his strength in his final public struggles. Something feels so very hollow inside today. Very sad.

        Condolences to Olivia and their entire family.

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    Chamberlain says:

    Good tribute for a good man.

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    MattMcD says:

    Jack Layton was one of those people who did what so few of us are willing to do. He put himself up into the public eye and subjected himself to the scrutiny of everyone else in the country. He worked hard to achieve the things he did, and while some of us may have disagreed with him, he did what he believed in, he was passionate about his work, and he did it out in the open.

    He didn’t hide behind some anonymous username while posting on the Sun website. He will be missed by many, except for those too classless and too stupid to refrain from posting distasteful comments on articles about his passing.

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      Chamberlain says:

      (I nominate this for Post of the Week.)

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        JenS says:


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    Bill Templeman says:

    Warren, good on you for waving the flag about abandoning pride & hubris and uniting the progressive vote. A united opposition to the Conservatives would be a great next step. Today we mourn Jack Layton, but tomorrow we should unite the progressive vote. Now that would be a fitting legacy,no? Or is there a groundswell of support for the Liberal re-building campaign that I am not aware of?

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    dave says:

    I knew after his press conference what was coming, and I wanted so badly to be wrong. So sad for so many reasons, political and personal. Dear Little Beatrice deserved to know her Grampa.

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    Joey Rapaport says:

    Great read, couldn’t agree more about the left uniting… even though I like Harper, 2 viable parties is way better for democracy!

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    Mike B says:

    Yes a truly great man has passed. I may not be an NDPer but I recognize a sincere and charismatic politician when I see it. Some of those comments on the Toronto Sun are disgusting. Looks like right-wingers really are the classless douchebags they are consistently portrayed as.

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    Rick Thomson says:

    When I saw his press conference, I turned to my wife and said he is not coming back. What a loss for Canada, I did not like his politics but I certainly respected him. He was a fighter and spoke his mind.

    Rest in Peace Jack.

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    Cameron Prymak says:

    An excellent tribute, WK.

    Before the disease could rob Mr. Layton entirely he chose to use his remaining energies to champion the causes of other Canadians, others who had no voice.

    So I will never forget the passion in his voice while on the campaign trail, particularly on one issue, where he cajoled, chided and just basically challenged his opponents to help lift seniors out of poverty.

    To Jack it was simply doable. He beautifully articulated the basic choices and stark contrasts in front of us and pushed all Canadians to remain committed to that hope.

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    John Mraz says:

    Dear Warren et al.

    As I sit here in Tunis, working with political parties newly born from the seismic eruptions of this year’s Arab Spring, I am rocked by the news of Mr. Layton’s death.

    I find myself moved to tears.

    For many, many years, I fought as a partisan Liberal – often striking out directly against Jack and Olivia as I saw fit, without remorse or regret.

    I cannot offer any apology or exegesis that would hold true, and so I won’t.

    Yet I will miss you Jack. And I grieve for you Olivia – be strong.

    I cannot, with any integrity, pretend that our ongoing battle was anything but that – a fight for hearts and minds – in a savage forum that offers few apologies and little compassion.

    I will say this.

    As many know, I became convinced through the last two years of my life that a union of the NDP and my beloved Liberal Party would best serve Canada.

    I fought with some few like souls, at great personal expense, to make that case.

    A majority of my party rejected our call.

    And I’m sorry I failed you Jack. I’m sorry we failed.

    I did not see eye to eye with you and your clan on some things, but in the last few years I did come to believe that we could make a marriage of our best – and create the Canada you so lyrically describe in your parting correspondence.

    A Canada compassionate, united, considered and exemplary.

    A Canada that both respected its gifts, and shared them with all.

    A Canada that I could proudly leave to my own son Luca – and to children across our land, from every corner of the world.

    Through this past campaign, you often reminded me of Winston Churchill, walking through London after the bombs had rained from hell on earth, talking to his compatriots, amongst his kin and kith, cane in hand.

    You were a light.

    I will remember you that way – for I came to not just to respect you then, but to love you as a brother, as I saw your strength, your principles and your true grit.

    You had transcended this mortal coil and still walked amongst us; a rare feat.

    Thank you for the inspiration.

    It will feed and nourish me as we work here in the Maghreb arm in arm with those who have only tasted a tiny corner of the freedom that should be theirs by any right.

    I am not a man of faith, but fate keep you and your family through time.

    I will not forget.

    Peace to you.

    John Mraz
    Tunis, Tunisia, 2011

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      Warren says:

      Thanks for that, my friend. Be safe over there!

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    DL says:

    “For his NDP ? because it was his NDP ? sad and bad times lay ahead. There is no possibility, none, that they can ever expect to maintain what they achieved with Jack Layton.

    Be careful about being so categorical – its one thing to say that you think its “unlikely” that the NDP can maintain what it achieved with layton but to say there is no chance whatsoever – are words you may live to regret. Never say never.

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    MCBellecourt says:

    One way to remember Jack would be to YouTube him. Jack was a pretty decent guitar player; in fact, I saw a picture of him and Olivia with three guitars in the background, one of them appeared to be a vintage model, very nice.

    He also had a wicked sense of humour. He did a parody of “King Of The Road”–his chorus line was “Make Me A Deal”. I think that one took place around 1995.

    He was the only federal leader in a long time who bothered to come up to out-of-the-way Prince George during an election campaign–a fact made more significant since some of our so-called ‘local’ candidates didn’t show up at all! Putting aside my own biases, that action spoke volumes about the kind of guy Jack was.

    It has been announced that he will be given a state funeral on Saturday, rightly so.

    Rest in peace, Jack Layton.

    Let us honour Jack’s memory by getting our noses to the grindstone, preserving the Canada that Jack loved. We can all do this by remembering the things that are truly important and by focussing on looking out for each other, because when it comes down to it, we’re in this together, and it will take a united effort to fight against the unseen forces that want to split us apart.

    We owe him at least that much.

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      MCBellecourt says:

      Ooooooops!!! I was WAY off on that date. Scroll down, my friends…got a link for you.

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    Marie B. says:

    I have never agreed with Jack Laytons’ politics but always respected him. I can’t express how sad I am today, and think Canada is suffering a profound loss.

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    Carlos Alexandre says:

    News bummed me out. Not much more to say. RIP Jack. 🙁

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    BF says:

    I met Jack over 25 years ago. When I first started at Canadian jewish Congress, he was a local municipal politician who called to introduce himself. We kept in touch ever since. Jack Layton was a mench. While we did not always agree our discussions though passionate were always civil and we both came away knowing we listened to each other. He was in my view a true Candian patriot . May his memory be for a blessing.

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    Darren K says:

    Your Mom should kill you for talking about her age.Tell her I’ll help hold you down!

    Very sad about Jack Layton. I put him on television in the early 80’s on the Rogers Community channel. He was in his late 20’s, and a real rabble rouser. You could get a sense that he cared about what he fought for. He wasn’t fighting for Power, he was fighting to do the right things.

    That part is sorely missed in our governments.

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    Sad Constituent says:

    The death of Jack Layton has affected me profoundly today, not because I was a huge fan of his political persona or tactics, not because I think the NDP can’t survive without him – I believe they will recover, but just his quiet dignity in dealing with this disease. I thought he would be at least okay until Christmas. I expected updates and rallying health and setbacks, but not this sudden darkness. And this made me realize how much of himself he had sacrificed for public life, and how happy he was to do it. And so, now that he’s gone, it’s all the more devastating because until this morning I’d not considered his life for what it was – one grand magnanimous gesture.

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    Anne Peterson says:

    Actually the conservative majority can be attributed to our lousy electoral system and low voter turn out. And some of us don’t consider 24% of eligible vote a majority, really. Just an ersatz majority. Something not earned.

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      Phil in London says:

      That’s the same stupid argument that debases the value of virtually every majority we’ve ever had. Should this stand the man who just passed away did not earn the many dozens of seats his party claimed in Quebec in the same election. If it’s good enough for anyone else’s majority (Chretien, McGuinty, Rae, I could go on and on) than it is good enough for this one.

      Using this logic who speaks for the lazy asses who didn’t get out to vote? Why are they automatically allocated to the losers side? Consider that 40% were so content with the government they had they didn’t bother to exercise their right to oppose it given distinct alternatives and you have a huge mandate.

      Do you go to Vegas and get mad when your blackjack dealer tells you his 17 beats your 22? Everyone knows how this works and comments like yours deligitamizes democracy as a whole as well as your intent toward this government.

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    MCBellecourt says:

    As I said a little earlier, I was way off on that date regarding Jack’s parody of “King Of The Road”. It was a Press Gallery dinner in 2005, not 1995, and CBC was good enough to provide a way better quality video of that same gig.

    Here’s the link for you. Enjoy, it’s really funny.


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    Chamberlain says:

    Fitting that for all the votes Jack made over the years on any number of issues that his last vote would be to bring down the Harper government.

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    Danforthist says:

    Warren, you must realize it is the Liberals who have turned down a merger point-blank. It is also the Liberals who abandoned the coalition. Me, I think we’re headed towards what the UK has now. A large social democratic party, and a large conservative party, with a smaller Liberal party holding the balance of power.

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    Danforthist says:

    Also … I think you’re missing the significance of your own statement that this is HIS NDP. You’re right. The NDP -even without Jack with them – continues to reflect all of Jack’s values. He’s made a lot of good or ordinary people into truly extraordinary people.

    Jack was thankfully able to show Quebecers the alignment between their values and those of the NDP. It isn’t as though they’re going to forget simply because Jack has passed away.

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