Today progressives across Canada and Quebec are mourning the tragic death of NDP leader Jack Layton, who died of cancer at the early age of 61. As well as leading the NDP to its recent historic election results, Layton provided a number of lessons about how opposition inside and outside Parliament can work together for peace and justice.
2003 Iraq war protests
In the midst of the largest global anti-war movement in world history, Jack Layton was elected leader of the NDP, promising to help stop the war. Despite Parliament being dominated by a Liberal majority and Tory Official Opposition both intent on war (a configuration much more challenging than today), Layton united the small NDP inside Parliament with the mass demonstrations outside Parliament. This united opposition split the government, forced Chretien to say no to war, and increased the NDP vote by 1 million the next year. Under Layton’s leadership the NDP — especially Olivia Chow — has continued its opposition to the Iraq war by supporting U.S. Iraq war resisters.
2006 opposition to the war in Afghanistan
In 2006 the anti-war movement again shaped the NDP, which officially adopted a position opposing the war in Afghanistan and calling for immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Jack Layton became the target of the pro-war machine, who labeled him “Taliban Jack,” a smear which five years later even the National Post had to retract. If the government had followed the NDP position — which the majority of Canadians support — 119 Canadians and countless Afghans would still be alive today. Instead the Conservatives and Liberals have joined to extend the war three times.
2011 historic election
Jack Layton will be most remembered for his stunning electoral success this year, leading the NDP to historic status of Official Opposition, based on historic gains in Quebec, and a historic crushing of the corporate Liberal party. Layton drew on popular anger at Harper’s war and austerity, Ignatieff’s complicity, and steps towards recognizing Quebec’s right to self-determination. Like other electoral gains, there was also the influence of events and movements outside Parliament, as I wrote after the election results:
“The two biggest gains for the NDP in the past 10 years happened in 2004 (after the anti-globalization and anti-war protests of 2001-2003, when the NDP gained 1 million votes and increased their popular vote by four per cent) and in this past election (after the economic crisis, mass protests in Wisconsin and ongoing revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East, when the NDP gained 2 million votes and increased their popular vote by 12 per cent). Over the past decade, these movements outside Parliament have depleted the combined corporate vote inside Parliament from 78 per cent to 58 per cent, a significant drop of 20 per cent.”
Layton showed the reciprocal actions that Parliament can have on movements when he led the filibuster to support striking postal workers. This demonstrated that when confronting a Harper majority, the new Official Opposition can magnify struggles outside Parliament — with a large and confident group of MPs that will continue Layton’s legacy.
It’s with these memories and others that we mourn today, and organize tomorrow.