Compared with a year ago, Wednesday’s assembly at Nathan Phillips Square to mark the anniversary of Jack Layton’s passing seemed almost celebratory, as if the man had never left us. Taking the pulse of the crowd, it quickly became evident why.
Over the course of the last fifteen months, since Layton led the NDP to official-opposition status, events have left some progressives with a sense of how precariously Canadian democracy is balanced. It’s as if the opera in Ottawa lurched into its ugly, dramatic fourth act with Layton’s death, and for those who gathered to honour his memory, there was a palpable sense of moving into action once again—of events so dire and challenging that mourning had given way to resolve.
“[Layton's death] left us stunned and broken,” recalled Jian Ghomeshi, Wednesday’s master of ceremonies, “but also left us with a challenge: to work together to finish the work he started.” There was massive applause. It was tough to stifle a little smile, recalling the last time a concert hall full of progressives rose to their feet in solidarity, turning Stephen Harper’s face very, very red in the process.
That was a year ago, when we heard Stephen Lewis make an exhortation similar to Ghomeshi’s from the pulpit at Layton’s funeral. But when Lewis spoke, events on Parliament Hill had not yet entered the flat, draconian spin of the last twelve months. There had been Copenhagen, but there hadn’t been the rhetoric maligning environmental activists as “enemies of the government and people of Canada,” or the legislative massacre dealt to environmental protection by Bill C-38. There had been the police state of the Toronto G20, but not the national authoritarian dragnet threatened by lawful access, or the aggressive, insulting language used by the state in its defence. And though Parliament had been prorogued multiple times by Harper’s minority government (each time out of Conservative self-interest or self-preservation), the depths of that government’s majority-era corruption and mendacity had yet to be as appallingly demonstrated as it was in February, when the Ottawa Citizen exposed the the Conservatives’ alleged use of robocalls to deflect, mislead, or confuse voters. As of press time, 1,394 “specific occurrences” have been reported by Elections Canada, accounting for 234 of 308 total federal ridings.
This is the backdrop against which citizens continue celebrating the legacy of Jack Layton, whether in Toronto, across the country, or online through the Dear Jack initiative. As jazz musician and Shuffle Demon Richard Underhill remarked at Wednesday’s memorial gathering, right before breaking into the aptly titled “Be Strong,” this legacy—working together for progress, for a more equal, inclusive, positive society, for social justice—has emerged in force, as action among First Nations, by activists against the Northern Gateway pipeline, by students participating in historic demonstrations, and by everyday people. Jack may not have been the only voice rousing a nation from its sleep, but through his example, he became a rallying point for Canada in what would become one of its darkest moments.
To counter the media narrative over the last week or so, that’s what made Jack special. Of course he wasn’t a saint, but he was much, much more than a retail politician (i.e. someone skilled at telling the public what they want to hear in exchange for votes). He was an idealist. As Layton wrote in the foreword to Canadian Idealism and the Philosophy of Freedom, effectively summarizing his political ethos, “Idealists imagine a positive liberty that enables us to build together toward common objectives that fulfill and even surpass our goals.” What he offered to the country remains, immortalizing him a year after his passing: a vision of Canada better than that of our gradually closing society, something Canadians of all political colours—orange, red, green, and yes, blue—have felt coming. Through that idealism, he gave us a way forward, reminding us that it’s okay to believe in something.
Maybe that’s why Wednesday didn’t feel like a collective mourning of a year without Jack Layton, so much as a celebration of the ways he is still alive.