What hit you first was the voice.
Driving into Toronto from northern Ontario, that’s what struck you first. The voice.
NDP Leader Jack Layton on the radio, announcing to a stunned Ottawa he was stepping down to battle what he called a “new cancer.”
And his voice — the voice that had propelled Layton and his New Democrats to its biggest-ever victory on May 2 — sounded like it belonged to another man. A much older man.
In a town where there are few secrets — and in a business where gossip is a third official language — you could tell that many folks were truly shocked by Layton’s decision to step aside for an interim leader.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said through a spokesman he was “deeply saddened” by the news. Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae struck a similar tone, wishing Layton “a full recovery and a speedy return to politics.”
On Twitter, you could see a number of veteran Ottawa journalists were taken aback by the sound of Layton’s voice, and by his appearance.
“Oh, Jack doesn’t look good,” said the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt. “So sorry.” The CBC’s Rosemary Barton: “Layton looks totally different.”
And, truly, he did.
Last seen in public at the Toronto Pride Parade, Layton looked and sounded like a shadow of his former self.
“I’m going to fight this cancer now so I can be back to fight for families when Parliament resumes,” Layton said, but that sounded hopeful, at best.
He had barely left the Toronto hotel conference room before reporters started to bombard party president Brian Topp with questions about why Layton favoured a newly-elected rookie (Nycole Turmel) as a replacement, instead of his own experienced deputy leader (Thomas Mulcair).
Some may question whether any of those questions matter.
Harper has a majority, his Conservative Party continues to dominate in the polls, and — superficially, at least — the make-up of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition may seem like a trifling matter. But it isn’t.
Since the evisceration of the Liberal Party of Canada, progressives across the country have been counting on Layton to provide them with a voice in the Conservative-dominated Commons.
Whether New Democrats or not, the 60% of Canadians who did not vote Conservative were expecting Layton to provide a passionate and effective dissenting voice for the next four years. But that voice — temporarily, at least — is now silenced.
I have no confidence that any of the many rookies in the NDP caucus — or Mulcair, for that matter — could ever hope to provide the sort of leadership Layton has demonstrated over the past few months. None of them possess even a fraction of Layton’s charisma or ability to connect with average Canadians. None of them have his voice.
For the next while, then, that voice won’t be heard from so much. And that is a tremendous loss for the country, and for the House of Commons.
Mr. Layton, all of us wish you a return to health, and a return to your rightful spot in Parliament.
We, and that Parliament, need to hear from your voice again.