The outpouring of public grief since Jack Layton died less than a week ago is the most interesting and significant aspect of one of the most important events in Canadian political history. That’s for what it reveals about the kind of person Canadians would prefer to see running the country on their behalf. And it extends all the way from Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, and cabinet minister, to lowly backbencher from any party, or no party.
Among Canadians of all political stripes, or none, there is a genuine and heartfelt sense of loss. It’s as if a beloved family member has died, or a good friend held in the highest regard for his optimistic, caring attitude, his friendly, outgoing manner, and his honesty. And now too we know the full extent of Jack Layton’s extraordinary courage, considering what we know about the circumstances of his death and the thoughts and feelings expressed in his final, deathbed letter to his NDP colleagues, to other cancer sufferers, and to all Canadians.
Like a lot of other people I was shocked by his appearance at his final press conference a month ago when he announced he was stepping down to devote full time to fighting a new type of cancer that had attacked him. The amount of weight he had lost since the recent election campaign, his deathly pallor, his raspy voice, suggested he had little time left. I suspect he knew what he was up against during the campaign, if not before. But he fought the good fight, and brought the NDP to new heights as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. And there he was, faced with the fight of and for his life again, and determined to win, again. It was not to be, though the announcement this past Monday morning that Jack Layton had died was met with widespread shock and surprise.
I’m sure there were tears in homes across the nation. There certainly were in ours.
And there were tears again upon reading his last thoughts for Canadians. As great a last testament as I’ve ever read. It will long be remembered, cherished and hopefully acted upon by many generations of Canadians.
Keep the faith, Jack Layton said:
“Consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together.
Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.
“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”
How can anyone argue with that, turn it into mere politics as some have, cynically suggesting the outpouring of grief and praise for “St. Jack” had become “surreal,” as one commentator in the conservative media put it with shocking bad taste and terrible timing.
If Jack Layton’s deathbed letter to Canadians isn’t words to live by, let alone help guide the future of this country, I don’t know what is. And if someone wants to enshrine them in a place of honor in Parliament and Canadian history, they will have no argument from me.
By all accounts, from people who knew him in public or in private, a little or a lot, Jack Layton was exactly what he appeared to be. What you saw was what you got. He was a rarity in politics. There was no pretence, no hidden agenda. He was an honest, intelligent, optimistic human being who genuinely cared deeply about people, the broader Canadian community, or any community.
From what I’ve seen, heard and read, especially in the past week, he also knew how to live, to put politics aside and enjoy the moment. He was the kind of person I’d love to invite for a sit-down here at “the farm” and a chin-wag over a beer or two. And I’m sure he would have felt right at home.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in expressing his condolences, spoke of their mutual love of music, and of how they used to talk about jamming together when the opportunity arose. And I believe he was sincere when he said he was sad that can never happen. What a sight and lesson that would have been, to see two diametrically opposed politicians putting their political differences aside to make music together. What a breath of fresh air. What bridges it might have built, we’ll never know.
I hope and trust Harper, Prime Minister of Canada for at least the next four years, will reflect in a non-partisan way on Jack Layton and his last words to Canadians. If he does, if he has that kind of wisdom as well as intelligence, we’ll all be the better for it, and so will he.
The great outpouring of feelings for the man, and the message he left for us at the end, tells us in no uncertain terms he was the kind of honest, dedicated, inclusive national leader the vast majority of Canadians want, regardless of party affiliation. And they want this country governed by the spirit he expressed so well in his last letter to us. It was a wonderful gift.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.