Even in death, Jack Layton is still on the job, fighting the good fight.
Viewed from a narrowly political angle, the outpouring of collective grief, mourning and love that followed Layton’s passing last month certainly hasn’t hurt the federal New Democratic Party he led for eight years. New polling shows the leaderless NDP climbing into a first-place tie with the governing Conservatives in the weeks since Layton tragically succumbed to cancer August 22 – less than three months after he brought the NDP from small-party status to the brink of victory in last spring’s historic election.
Four years before the next federal election, you could say the survey is almost meaningless as a measure of the party’s chances of actually gaining power. But the rise in support is certainly reflective of some deeper truths. There’s no doubt Layton himself intended his death to help his political option. If he has succeeded, however, it’s because he knew how to reach people in ways that translate into a more enduring attachment.
Layton understood that the personal is political. And it’s on this level that he reached people in unprecedented numbers during the last election campaign. It also informed the way he faced his own mortality with courage and dignity. His final letter to Canadians will go down in history as an inspiring final act, one that he intended as a political call to arms and at the same time he used to metaphorically fold us all into his arms for a final, loving embrace.
I teared up on reading his “Letter to Canadians,” written two days before his death. In a particularly poignant passage, Layton urged other people battling cancer not to give up: “To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live their lives, I say this: please don’t be discouraged that my own journey hasn’t gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope…. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.”
Quite coincidentally, the day after Layton died I visited my cousin Lee in a hospice south of Calgary. Like Layton, Lee was a fighter, having twice previously overcome leukemia, the first time more than a dozen years ago, the second last fall. But this cruel disease always seems to come back. And while recovering this spring, it came back, too soon to give Lee a chance.
This time, Lee knew that the third bout would be his last. It didn’t stop him from cracking a couple jokes during my brief visit and expressing his love and support for the people he would be leaving behind. Having experienced my mother’s long and losing battle with cancer many years ago, I was already aware how cancer victims often end up comforting loved ones who are confronted with the awful reality of imminent mortality.
Only two days later, my cousin Lee died.
So it was hard to separate the emotions I felt that week. On his own deathbed, Layton comforted Canadians and urged his supporters to avoid despair.
Regular readers of this column know that I write from a strong and long-held progressive point of view. Though I don’t always agree with party policy, I have volunteered for the federal NDP in the last several elections, especially this past spring. Through my job with the CSN trade union central I have had the opportunity to meet Layton on a number of occasions, the last time during the party’s triumphant convention in Vancouver in late June. It was apparent then that he had lost weight since the election though he appeared in good spirits.
So it’s evident that a good part of my grief stems from the fear that this unprecedented opportunity to finally actually implement a progressive agenda in the national government may perish with the man most responsible for bringing this dream so close to reality.
But our “bon Jack” has shown us the way, emphasizing in words and his example that it’s not about any one person, even him. Hard as it may be to imagine at this juncture who else could fulfil the Layton’s destiny to lead the NDP to power as effectively as Jack did, bringing us to the brink of power.
Whoever the new leader will be, their route to success and victory for the NDP is to continue building on the high road that Jack mapped out for us. As he concluded his last letter to us all, “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.”
We’ll miss you, Jack.