OpenFile Hamilton has just published a piece I wrote on learning that Jack Layton died early Monday morning.
Courage, my friends; it's never too late to make a better world.
-- Tommy Douglas
Before the October 2008 federal election, Jack Layton was a guest on The Hour with George Stromboloupoulos. The cool, pragmatic realist with one eye winking at the audience, Strombo took Layton to task for his presumption in running to be prime minister.
Layton argued that the big parties were not concerning themselves with the issues that Canadian families grapple with around the kitchen table and said that his party - the NDP - planned to come to government with real solutions.
Strombo came back: "Like, I get what you're saying, but if you look at all the polling and the NDP has never had that office, you don't think you're gonna win in this particular election and be the prime minister, because you know the way the numbers are rolling out. So I wonder: why put yourself in that position?"
Unruffled, undeterred, Layton replied with his signature hopefulness. "I'm like the guy who, you know, you've got a, one of those Olympic athletes, the coach says, everybody says, you're gonna come ninth, or twelfth, and you say, you know something? We're going to do better than that. We're actually gonna go out there and try and win - because we really believe that what we're offering is the right way to go for the country."
He concluded, "Let's try something new. We're not gonna let people tell us time and time again you can't do that, it's not possible. I finish every speech by saying, 'Don't let them tell you it can't be done.' It's a can-do kind of approach, and if you don't believe in it, then don't come forward and offer it."
Strombo refused to give up his talking point. In politics, earnestness plus ambition always makes for a fun target. He joked that viewers would think Layton was "smoking pot" and drew laughter and applause with his bet that the NDP would not pick up any seats in Alberta. "A cold beer!" wagered Layton, laughing as well.
When Strombo asked whether Layton would be happy with Stephane Dion's job - a job he held until his untimely passing this morning - Layton grinned and replied, "When you interview somebody in a race, do you say, 'So, how about second?' ... I didn't get into politics to be in opposition."
Clearly exasperated, Strombo interrupted: "Then why join the NDP?!"
"Because," said Layton, "I share the hopeful sentiment of Tommy Douglas ... 'Courage, my friends; it's never too late to make a better world.'"
As for that Alberta seat? New Democrat Linda Duncan went on to win Edmonton-Strathcona in the 2008 election, a seat she still holds after the 2011 election in which the NDP finally broke through to become the Official Opposition with 103 seats.
I don't know whether Layton ever collected on that beer.
Before this latest bout of cancer cut him down, Jack Layton was bearing his party on an ascendancy that almost no one could have imagined, let alone predicted, just a few short years ago.
Over the eight years of Layton's leadership, each time the NDP built on their previous standings in the House of Commons, the wagging heads all pronounced that the party had reached its ceiling, maxed out its potential, crowded up against reality.
Yet on May 3, 2011, it suddenly seemed possible - even plausible - that Jack Layton might just draw a broad enough swath of Canadians into the fold to win the top job in October 2014.
I don't know what the NDP's fortunes will be now that he's gone, and for now I'll leave that for others to consider.
For many years, Jack Layton has been one of my personal heroes and role models - not so much for his political values, many of which I do share, but for his sheer indefatigability.
It went far beyond mere stubbornness. After all, lots of people keep at it - whatever it is - long after all hope has gone, simply because they don't know any different. For Layton, he never abandoned the transformative belief that he could make a difference, that things really could get better.
I feel ashamed when thinking of Jack Layton and his brassy ambition to beat the odds, grab the big steering wheel and turn the country in a new direction.
I'm not a politician but I've done my share of advocacy, mainly at the local municipal level where I feel I can make the biggest difference. My shame comes from comparing my own frequent bouts of frustration, discouragement and even despair with Layton's steadfast optimism.
Over time I worry that my civic ambitions and hopes have been getting smaller, not bigger: diluted and downscaled and domesticated by the steady weight of 'realism' that drags on all visionary ideals.
Layton understood not only that change happens in the space between strongly-held positions, but also that it requires strongly-held positions to create that space. "If you start with a compromise right at the beginning and no debate, you're really only going with the status quo and buttering it up a little."
Never one to butter up the status quo, Layton fought his entire life to shake the establishment out of its apathy. Even if we don't agree with everything he stood for or everything he did to promote his agenda, we can be inspired to approach our lives and our civic engagement with the same strong commitment to a clear vision of a better world.
Jack Layton's last message to Canadians parallels Tommy Douglas' sentiment and encapsulates the lesson Jack tried to teach us with his life and his work:
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.
Do we have the courage to embrace this lesson and to hold it in trust in our own lives?
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