I met Jack Layton just once and I’ve often wished I could have sparred with him again.
A good friend of mine has been with the NDP for many years, and when Mulcair was introduced in Quebec, he invited me to an event on avenue du Parc. I showed looking for some lively debate and microbrews and I wasn’t disappointed. I still had an election hangover from the most recent Federal election nearly two years prior, which had boosted the eminently reckless and vicious Stephen Harper to the highest seat in the land and I was looking for blood. Many of the campaign tactics and nonsense strategies I saw from the Greens, the Grits and yes, the NDP had left me supremely disappointed.
I also had a favourite, and to this day I still do. Gilles Duceppe is a devout separatist, but he is also one of the strongest socially progressive candidates out there, and as a party leader with a huge voting block who doesn’t actually want to win, he often said what he really meant without concern about alienating an audience outside Quebec. I knew that the NDP shared similar social values though from a Federalist perspective, but in my view they had failed to hit hard on the crime bills, on women’s rights, on the environment, taxes and myriad other issues. I was looking for these hippie-dippy yahoos to answer me when I demand why they wouldn’t do the obvious thing and start bitch slapping the Harper radicals up and down the Canadian shield.
I mooched around for a while, like any good proto-journalist, listening to conversations, sipping my lager. I nosed around with my friend and finally got a chance to talk to big J. I congratulated Tommy and introduced myself and asked if we could talk about the last federal election. Now remember, I’m a Quebecker. We have a shall we say, les relations complexe with religion. So I asked, completely aghast, why didn’t the NDP see what I saw? How is it that the disgusting and underhanded way that the Harper radicals used the machinery of the church in Quebec to gain ground wasn’t all over the front page of the NPD website and further, how is it that alternate religious groups weren’t engaged by the opposition?
Jack was very good natured and at first tried out some cheerleader boilerplate talk. Though I was focused on how many seats were lost to Harper in Quebec;
Jack: Well we won unprecedented seats in Manitoba and Saskatchewan
Me: Yeah, but there’s more of us here in Quebec than in Manitoba and Saskatchewan
That’s when he and I really got into it. He was being more than polite by standing there at his own event and really listening to me raise my voice (okay, I was yelling by the end) about the distinct need for a social democratic party that isn’t afraid to get savvy and vicious and religious. To get personal and really delve into communities that aren’t Evangelical Christian and who deserve representation, and to seek out Evangelicals who aren’t happy with the folks who want to represent them. I got really agitated and passionately decried the laxness of the last federal election strategy, and the failure of anyone on the left to call Harper out on what he was doing. I demanded to know why the social contract of this country is not treated like a moral issue, why attacking healthcare via penny-pinching accountancy or domestic violence by way of nonsense preserving-the-family narratives aren’t a serious moral failing of the blue-in-the-face-psycho-cons.
He looked at me and started talking about a growing network of religious groups, from Sikhs to Hindus, to Orthodox Jews who all care about social justice and want strong representation in Parliament. He really listened. And when I asked him where the hell this initiative was in the campaign and why the hell no-one was shouting from the rooftops about this network, he handed me a card and said we should talk about it. He asked point blank what he thought I should do about it. I said, “I think you should get on it. Start talking about this stuff on camera and online, not just in meeting rooms.”
I never forgot that. He didn’t try to weasel out of the conversation, he didn’t try to out-manoeuvre me. He gave me a lot of time from what I’m sure was a demanding schedule and he responded honestly. It’s kind of sad when something as simple as that is extraordinary, but there you have it.
He was a giant of a man. I confess, not my favourite politician, and not someone I regularly voted for, (as a woman in Quebec, I knew Gilles, the Silver Fox was a stronger advocate for me than anyone else), but he was present. He didn’t have some deranged vision of a strange new country, and he didn’t dismiss what I consider vital. He was there and he heard me.
The landscape now is vastly different than it was. Crazy things are happening and our parliament – not our country – is far more polarized than it was. Quebec is exposed and deeply vulnerable, Danny Williams is no longer a voice from the East and a deeply radical religious community has unprecedented access to the House of Commons. I mourn a person of deep conviction and immutable vision. A person of character and skill. A man of class and generosity. I’d love nothing more than to drive back to Ottawa, stop in at Darcy McGees and debate with Jack about the best ways to move our country forward, maybe over a glass of smoky amber…ah but now I’m romanticizing.
Canada has lost a strong voice and a tireless leader, but not the vision and not the insistence that we can be a stronger, better, more intelligent, creative and caring nation. Whomever holds these values, take some good advice from our dear friend: don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done.
Jack’s final words to all of us.
Please donate to the fight against cancer, in honour of Jack.