Don’t mourn! Organize! — Joe Hill, Swedish-American union organizer
Canadians still mourn the loss of Jack Layton, Joe Hill’s wise strategic counsel to social activists notwithstanding.
I first made that observation on this date in 2011, when we learned the terrible news that Layton had been struck down by cancer at the age of 61, still in the prime of his political life.
His loss came as a profound shock, even to those of us who feared the worst after that news conference less than a month earlier at which he announced he was stepping down as leader of the Opposition to battle a new onslaught of the disease.
Not quite four months before, Canada’s New Democratic Party leader had led the social democratic party to its highest tide in the House of Commons, 103 seats, supplanting the Liberal Party of Canada as the Opposition.
Many felt that had the campaign lasted a few days more, the Orange Wave he surfed could have carried the NDP to victory. Many felt that had he lived, the next election would have sent him into Canadian history as Prime Minister Jack Layton. He was beloved by many Canadians, respected by many more.
For those of us who have heard Layton speak, let alone who have met and talked with him, it is very hard to comprehend that someone so full of life could be alive no more.
On the theory that the best mourning is done by retelling happy tales that illustrate the character of our departed comrade, let me tell you about my peculiar relationship with Layton, the only leader of a national political party ever to have picked up the telephone and made a cold call to me, to ask me for an unusual favour, no less.
Actually, this is a bit of a fib. He had a political aide call first, to make sure I’d be waiting by my telephone when he phoned. But the aide, a very polite young person whose name, I’m afraid, has long been lost, refused to reveal the topic of the upcoming call.
This happened in 2008, and to tell you the truth, with a federal election expected eventually, I thought Layton might be about to ask me to be a candidate in one of those remote Alberta ridings presumed then as now to be a lost a cause for the NDP.
In the event, however, Sunny Jack astounded me with another request entirely. Would I consider becoming, he asked, the poet laureate of the NDP?
OK, maybe the word laureate never left his lips, but without a doubt the phrase poet of the NDP was uttered more than once.
This turned out to be the brainchild of a mischievous Toronto business journalist and teacher named Kimberly Noble, a former colleague of mine at The Globe and Mail‘s Report on Business who apparently had Layton’s ear on certain matters. It seems she had persuaded him of the potential political uses of light verse on current topics and given him the idea I was just the guy to dash off doggerel on demand.
Of course I said yes, although I’m sorry to report that nothing much came of this cheerful scheme. Presumably cooler heads prevailed in the busy months leading up to the great achievement of May 2011.
On the other hand, Layton consistently responded, politely and swiftly, when I misused his private parliamentary email address and sent him questions for the enlightenment of this blog’s readers, so all was not for naught.
Alas, this blog was the only place my first and only effort for Layton ever saw the light of day…
Election Eve, 2008
We’ve heard the pitches, promised goals
Put forth by Tories and by Libs.
Why are they sinking in the polls?
Perhaps because they’re mostly fibs!
Now that they know they can’t relate
Because their plans, revealed, are seen
To be a failure in debate,
They hope to get us voting Green,
It’s their last chance, the only way
To beat the surging NDP
And save their butts on Voting Day.
We hope that all Canadians see:
To get the country back on track
It’s time to vote for Layton, Jack!
Here we are — a long, strange decade later — at the start of another national election campaign when, as the spinmeisters from all of Canada’s major political parties tell us, almost anything could happen.
The New Democrats have had a couple of leaders since Layton, and, in ways that are hard to quantify, the present one reminds of lot of us of the original.
Obviously, as the rhyming summary above suggests, not everything is the same in 2021 as it was in 2011. The Greens are being touted by no cynical strategist as a hurdle in the way of the NDP.
Neither the Tories nor the Libs are really sinking in the polls at this moment — the claims of party partisans notwithstanding. All the movement in the first week of this campaign seems to have been within a normal pollster’s margin of error. If someone is to sink, they haven’t sunk just yet.
But if they’re not surging, the NDP seems to have some buoyancy at least, and, as readers will notice, the present leader’s name will fit quite smoothly into that final line.
Perhaps in the next few days Canadians, unlikely as it might sound, will really decide…
…It’s time to vote for Jagmeet Singh!
NOTE: This piece draws heavily on the post I published in this space on Aug. 22, 2011, just hours after we received the news of Mr. Layton’s death. DJC
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet (herein lies the proof) and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.
Image: David J. Climenhaga/Used with permission