Jack: A voice for the powerless

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The event that caused Jack Layton to join the NDP despite his family's deep Liberal-Conservative roots, was the party's opposition, under Tommy Douglas's leadership, to the imposition of military law in Quebec in 1970. Jack was 20. A small group of radicals had kidnapped two people in the name of a "free" Quebec. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared martial law and tossed hundreds of people, almost none of them connected with the kidnappings, in jail. To many onlookers it seemed like a brazen attempt to intimidate and stifle the rising, and in itself quite legitimate, movement for Quebec independence.

This wasn't a socialist issue, or even left-wing. It was a matter of civil rights. Some members in all parties were appalled. But only the NDP, under Douglas, stood up publicly. It was unpopular. They did it, knowing the consequences.

Jack would surely have called himself a socialist, then and later. But I think it was this kind of battle for justice, especially on larger social issues, that drew him in. He seemed most at home speaking for those who lacked the levers of wealth or power. (The comfortable, of course, have a right to their rights. But they tend to be well-represented in the public realm.) He liked being a kind of tribune for the relatively powerless and voiceless; it meshed with his flare for attention and focus. For this reason I see him more as a man of the left -- almost in the sense of the French Revolution -- than a classical socialist. By the time he became active in party politics, socialism wasn't much of an issue anywhere, and it has become less so ever since. Justice is another matter.

He was also a kind of action junkie; it suited his penchant for trying to rectify injustice on behalf of the overlooked and ignored. He liked being where the debate was happening, and if he wasn't, he liked bringing the debate over to where he thought it should be. He was obsessive about this mission -- I think both terms are accurate -- to represent those who needed a voice. It's how he saw his role as an elected representative. People who knew him say that if an evening arrived when he had no meeting to attend or address, he'd quickly check schedules and find one, or several. He didn't much like spending time alone. This may have jibed with some need for attention or even an element of anxiety in his makeup. But it's hard to imagine anyone committing themselves to politics who's not driven by deep personal need. Otherwise why get in and take the gaff? What matters is how productive you can be with whatever it is that impels you.

So it's striking that his greatest political triumph -- becoming the first NDP leader of the opposition -- came when his legendary zest and activity had diminished, due to illness. That may even have boosted his electoral appeal. The cane and the pain slowed him down, made him more normal. Perhaps they made him more reflective too, which people sensed and could identify with. Life isn't just about social action, it's also about individual aloneness. A brush with mortality can make you look at areas you've been trying to avoid -- usually a good thing and one that others notice. (There was also the Quebecois dans la rue quality of his French, which resonated brilliantly among Quebec voters.)

I wrote often about Jack over the years, usually critically. I was bothered by what seemed like his strong need for approval and praise. I have a preference for "I don't give a crap" politicians. But maybe we're just over-sensitive to signs in others of some of the qualities we fear might exist in ourselves. I also objected to his party's role in giving us the first Harper minority (along with the loss of a groundbreaking national child-care program) and then the first Harper majority -- by splitting votes with the Liberals, especially in Ontario. But hell, if you're going to play the election game, then you play it to win. You don't pull your punches out of some altruistic concern that you might help someone worse beat out someone not quite as bad. You're in or you're out.

His reactions to what I wrote were always positive and generous. I don't think this was just smart politics, though there's no point in alienating the press. I think it also sprang from his character: a belief he could help bring people of basic good-will -- which includes most humans -- together to build a better society. Maybe he even thought there was something he could learn from a little of the negativity he was so averse to in himself.

The real test of a life, it seems to me, is not what you are or what you do. It's how you change and grow. Otherwise what's the point of living a life, which occurs in time, rather than being a painting on the wall: something that's done and finished and just sits there to be admired. I think there's evidence he lived that kind of learning curve, increasingly so toward the end. His final letter, released Monday, shows an amazing warmth, hopefulness, even a luminosity. Illness and early death are nothing anyone would ask for but it would be typical of his optimism and positive bent to find whatever might be of value in them.

There was some grousing among NDPers when Jack's second round of cancer was revealed. After all these years and what we've gone through, and finally reached such a point of success -- we don't deserve this, etc. Well, of course almost no one does deserve that kind of news. But this is certain: you'd never have heard it from Jack. More than anything else, he was not a whiner. Sometimes he was so relentlessly a non-whiner that it was irritating. But that could also be the quality that best equipped him to be a uniquely successful leader of his party and perhaps, though we'll never know, of his country.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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