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Fowler: The People’s Prime Minister

September 16, 2011

The trajectory of Jack Layton’s tragic and inspiring story seems almost too poetic to have occurred. The man had neither the aura of greatness nor the fascinating biographical narrative that had powered the rises of Pierre Trudeau and Barack Obama. His rhetoric rarely soared the way it did with those giants, and up until this past May few would have thought of him as anything more than a good-natured public servant. But that was exactly why Jack’s house was covered with flowers, candles, and keepsakes; it’s why the CN Tower shined radiantly orange the weekend of his funeral; and it’s why thousands of teary-eyed Canadians gathered to say goodbye to their friend. At his essence, Jack was nothing more than an easy going guy who seemed to be in politics for the right reasons and whose commitment to his principles made him seem surreally genuine. It says a lot about society that these humble qualities have led to Jack being instantly ingrained into the nation’s history, narrative, and soul.

Like his stature, his accomplishments would have been respectable but lean had Jack left us before the last campaign. Decades of public service, with a zeal for defending the most vulnerable members of society, led to Jack’s dramatic rise to the top of the New Democratic Party and his continuous enlargement of the NDP vote and caucus. He worked well in successive minority parliaments run by both parties, never allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good and ensuring that, even in times of international financial crisis, the government would stay focused on looking after the poor. He maneuvered well in making sure that unemployment benefits, pensions, and health care would be protected even as auto companies were bailed out and corporations were given tax cuts. Alone this would be a reasonably impressive record for the leader of the fourth largest party in the House.

This all changed on May 2nd. After campaigning across the country while recovering from hip surgery and with latent cancer, sporting the now iconic cane that a supporter had given him, and refusing to dive into the cesspool of negative attacks that consumed the Tories and that the Liberals were succumbing to, Jack had begun inspiring hope and picking up momentum in the province that had been longest turned off by federal leaders. Dismayed with the ineffectiveness of the Bloc Quebecois but not prepared to return to the fold of either of the two principal parties, Quebeckers began giving Jack a serious look. At that point he became unstoppable, charming the province with his sincerity and social democratic principles and urging them to support a pan-Canadian party that shared their values. On May 2nd they did just that, making Jack the man that accomplished what neither the Liberals, Conservatives, or three successive prime ministers were able to do: he decimated the Bloc Quebecois, removing the specter of separatism from the federal scene and bringing Quebec back into full participation in national political discourse. On this achievement alone Jack measures up to the best of Canadian victories, akin to when Pierre Trudeau defeated Rene Levesque’s separatism referendum in 1980.

But beyond any tangible accomplishments, Jack was beloved most because of how he interacted with people. In truth his appeal stemmed as much from the aloofness of his rivals as anything he did himself. As Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper awkwardly shook hands and smiled for pictures in rather strained and unnatural ways, Jack was a man who would like nothing more than to order a pint at a pub and listen to a factory worker talk about his family and what challenges he thought were facing the country. The man was not perfect, as he himself stated in his touching letter to Canadians, and some of other political stripes have countered that everything from the use of his cane to his very public and politically motivated funeral events demonstrated that he was a shameless self promoter. But it really speaks to the character of a politician if the worst thing you can say about them was that they self-promoted.

In his eulogy to Jack, Rev. Brent Hawkes said that, “If the Olympics can make us prouder Canadians, then maybe Jack’s life can make us better Canadians.” The historical gravity of the man and the moment was made perfectly clear at that point, as people more fully realized the impact Jack’s life had had on the country. Walking out of his funeral, it was overwhelming to see the thousands who had packed in around Roy Thomson Hall. The emotions on their faces and the signs they held showed that Jack’s death had not aroused just respect. The feeling of deep personal loss at Jack’s untimely passing was palpable, and reflected a true love for the man who had inspired Canadians to be better. About to enter the crowd on my way out, I saw a woman in an orange shirt holding a sign that read “The People’s Prime Minister.” The thousands packed around Roy Thomson Hall, and the millions across the nation, clearly agreed.

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