Jack Layton was a beloved political leader, but he was an avowed activist too. He understood the interconnection between the formal world of politics and the need for outside pressure and work from social movements to make change happen.
I find it hard to fathom that it’s been 10 years since he left us — at the height of his political career, leader of the Official Opposition in Parliament and poised to take on even bigger roles. Jack knew how to seize an opportunity for change. Who can forget his bold moves to defeat Stephen Harper’s government in 2008 with the hopes of forging a new progressive coalition to lead us away from austerity and recession?
It’s his activism that I want to highlight. A core element of Jack Layton’s legacy is his support of activism. August 22, 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of Jack Layton’s death. The legacy of Jack’s life’s work will be celebrated with a special online gala event on that date, part of on an ongoing Jack Layton Legacy project to honour and continue the work he so believed in. The Legacy project’s work centres on the need to grow activism and move forward with the transformative changes we need to make.
I first met Jack in the 1980s when we were young city councillors, in Toronto and Vancouver respectively. We connected immediately with our values and ideals to organize for change. We had a burning desire to make important changes in the municipal arena by working on big issues both global and local.
There were many detractors who saw city politics as nothing more than potholes and more development, but we had other ideas. The world was engulfed in a treacherous nuclear arms race towards annihilation, and national governments and the international community seemed paralyzed to stop it.
We decided to form a network of Canadian cities committed to disarmament and peace called the Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Network. It became a powerful example of grassroots mobilization to take on the seemingly intractable status quo of the Cold War and superpower domination.
We became part of a global movement — similar in many ways to today’s environmental justice movement that is determined to bring about necessary transformative change to save the planet. We also worked together to make local governments leaders in fighting the stigma of HIV/AIDS by upholding the human rights and dignity of people and providing needed services and supports.
Later we would connect again while mobilizing to end the human-made disaster of people who were made homeless by government policy. Though thousands of miles apart, we were on a parallel track to make activism a part of politics and politics a part of the massive movement for change.
I sure miss those days of working with Jack, because he had a knack for understanding that activism was key to the political process of change. Many leaders would like to separate these streams of work and marginalize the work that activists do as fleeting or even irrelevant to the quest of power.
But Jack knew differently — he knew that our work as parliamentarians was made stronger by the work of allies and activists who pushed us and all levels of government to be bolder and more incisive. His words, “Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done,” often rallied people to shake it up and do more.
The Layton Legacy is a celebration of Jack’s life and work. It’s work that is ongoing. And it’s work that needs nourishment and support and new vigour as we face the greatest perils we ever have. Today we’re confronting a dying planet, shattering inequality that leaves people suffering and in pain, and a concentration of wealth and power that is obscene and destroying.
Those perils and gaping contradictions between elite power and human need were epitomized just recently by billionaires glorifying their space trips in the face of a global pandemic where 99 per cent of the world’s population is without life-saving vaccinations.
It’s easy to feel demoralized and down about these seemingly daunting times and challenges — I’m not knocking people for it. It’s so tough for the vast majority of people struggling to survive on a daily basis, never mind all the bigger questions at hand. So I ask myself — what would Jack say to us today? How would he approach the tough times we face; how would he hold us up so that together we can go forward with purpose and determination? Where would he begin?
Based on my personal experiences with Jack, I believe he might say something like: “start where you can — even a small step — and bring like-minded people with you.” He’d urge us to think big and learn about the power we hold as ordinary people to overcome injustice, racism, and environmental degradation. He’d say, never give up the fight, because he never did to his dying day. He’d say, do your activism and make it strong and resilient, and support one another as you do it.
The Layton Legacy recognizes all of this — the urgency and imperative to keep growing our movements.
On a practical level, The Layton Legacy is offering an opportunity for awards and leadership support. It’s easy to get involved. Jack was a strong supporter and reader of rabble.ca. He kept his eye on the babble discussions even when they were less than supportive of him from time to time! He knew to keep his ear to the ground to know how people were feeling about key issues.
rabble has initiated a wonderful series showcasing rabble rousers to watch — there is so much good work going on. So it seems fitting that all the rabble rousers out there have an opportunity to find support and inspiration, in Jack’s name and legacy. Know a grassroots organization doing important work? Nominate them here.
“Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.”
Libby Davies was a member of Parliament for 18 years (1997-2015) and became House Leader for the federal NDP party (2003-2011) and Deputy Leader (2007-2015). In 2016 Davies received the Order of Canada and in 2019 published Outside In: A Political Memoir.
Image credit: rabble staff