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Ave Atque Vale, Jack

Jack Layton celebrating on the night of the most recent federal election.

A summary of Jack Layton’s political successes and failures seems insufficient when describing him, because he was not your average politician. He was a political construction man, and a masterful one. When he ran for the NDP’s leadership in 2003, the party was moribund; eight years later, it has replaced the Liberals as Canada’s de facto party of the centre-left. He did it by organizing the NDP—traditionally the most disorganized and chaotic of Canada’s political parties—into a machine capable of fighting for and winning seats across the country. Jack Layton rejuvenated the left in Canada to an extent absolutely nobody thought was possible when he became the party’s leader—well, nobody except Jack, of course.

This is not to say that he was incapable of error. He had his share of screw-ups. Some will recall his campaign to rename the NDP as “the Democrats” in order to sync up with the American party’s brand, which is notable simply because it was such an uncharacteristically awful idea for him to have. In the most recent federal election campaign, opponents made hay when Jack shot off a thoughtless comment about how he felt the Bank of Canada—an entity independent of the government—wasn’t doing enough about interest rates. And, of course, when he dressed up in a Star Trek uniform, he forgot to put command pips on, therefore making himself out to be a lowly enlisted man suitable only to be eaten by a horrible alien thing.

But, unlike most politicians, his errors made him appear more genuine, not less. This was because Jack Layton was genuine: he wore his heart on his sleeve and never backed down in defense of his beliefs. The Canadian left followed Jack because of his strength of character and because he articulated and fought tirelessly for their beliefs; the right respected him for the same reasons. And both sides loved him for his optimism, his pragmatism, and his seemingly unstoppable energy. We all call him “Jack,” after all. We don’t call Stephen Harper “Stephen,” and we didn’t call Michael Ignatieff “Mike.” The first-name basis was reserved for Jack, because the former city councillor had the knack for making all politics local to each and every one of us: the problems of someone half a continent away on the other side of Canada were our problems in Jack’s mind, and he convinced us of that.

When Jack announced he was taking a break from politics to fight cancer a second time, many Canadians (this writer included) looked at his skeletal appearance, heard his exhausted voice, and thought “still, if anybody can come back from this, he can.” That’s why his death comes as such a shock even though we all knew well enough to expect it: deep in our hearts, we didn’t think he could lose a fight. If Jack said he was going to beat cancer when he was maybe 80 pounds soaking wet then, dammit, he was going to beat cancer, odds be damned. We are today in mourning after discovering he was indeed mortal after all.

Because he was such a massive presence in Canadian politics, and for many people he simply was the NDP and therefore the heart of liberalism in this country, a lot of people on the internet this morning were saying “what now?” over and over again. Jack Layton has passed on, and the Canadians who loved him and admired him feel rudderless. Who will lead the NDP in Parliament now? Who will be the voice of opposition to Conservative policies now? Who will inspire us to work for a better Canada now?

All of these questions are understandable. They are all also self-indulgent and a little silly, and Jack would be the first person to tell you that (although he would be awfully polite and friendly about it). Were Jack here right now to answer those questions, he would simply say in answer to each of them: “you will.” And in fact, he did. He understood that each of us has the potential to be great for all of us: he put 103 Dippers in Parliament to underscore the point. Jack’s life was, ultimately, not about himself: it was about making Canada and the world a better place, and demonstrating to the rest of us how he wanted to do that.

In that spirit, then, and in the spirit of Jack Layton, who never gave up on Canada so long as there was breath in his body, we close with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music”:

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

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