Acceptance of inevitability does not diminish the sadness of loss. When Jack Layton told Canadians his cancer had returned and he was taking a leave of absence to concentrate on fighting it, it was painfully evident based on his gaunt appearance that he was not doing very well. But it still came as a tremendous and deeply cutting shock when he passed away early yesterday morning. Agree with his politics or not, Jack Layton was one of those people you thought would always be there. Better scribes than I have already lauded his legacy as a public servant and I suspect there is little appetite on your part for a half-assed elegy from me, someone who never voted NDP in his life and who to be perfectly honest was a little peeved with Jack more than once for some of the choices he made. Be that as it may I can only admit to one personal encounter with the man, watching him speak at the Green Living Show in Toronto in 2007. One of only two of the five federal party leaders at the time to appear in person – Elizabeth May was the other – Jack’s address was a little of that uniting “we’re all in this together” mojo that Barack Obama would wield so skillfully a year later. I don’t recall him once pitching for votes during that speech – it was the expression of a vision, of the things people can do when they work hard and work together. I wasn’t all surprised to see that same sentiment expressed in his final letter to the Canadian people.
Written as the end neared, it’s a beautiful farewell and one that has been Facebooked, Tweeted, shared and re-shared all over the country. And yet it was not 24 hours before someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum felt it necessary to print a detraction – mocking the media coverage and accusing Layton of using the moment for political advantage. It is highly cynical to suggest that the thoughts of someone in the last hours of his life are consumed with electoral math. Lee Atwater, the Republican strategist whose lasting legacy is the elevation of the political smear campaign to levels undreamed of by Richard Nixon’s gutter crew, spent his final days writing letters of apology to men whose careers he had destroyed. At the time, Atwater was criticized much in the same vein, that he was just doing political spin to the very end. Maybe it was nothing more than trying to latch on to a shred of dignity, but I don’t think it’s fair to assume anyone’s state of mind as death approaches. We can’t possibly know it until we face it ourselves. Where someone like Lee Atwater, who spent his life spreading darkness, deserves credit, is for his ultimate recognition of something that Jack Layton knew all along – that one should go out in the light and with hope for those left behind.
Jack Layton’s letter is the final instructions from a great political leader to his party, which many assume will have a difficult time in the years ahead without his guidance – but he is leaving them with the confidence that they already have all they need to triumph without him. It is the last testament of a father to his children, hoping that they will find successes that outshine his own achievements in ways he cannot even imagine. No one should have expected anything else from him to his loyal troops. And yet the letter bequeaths to all Canadians a positive vision of the incredible possibilities that can come from cooperation and unity – a message revealed by its viral spread to have surprising resonance in a country grown cynical of government and the motivations of politicians. It reminds the pessimist and the cynic that most of our fellow human beings are fueled by the same desire to create a positive and progressive place to live. At times we are scared, we are confused, we don’t know who to listen to or which direction we should turn, but we have a common dream. And it is our responsibility to take the parting wisdom of men like Jack Layton and use it to shape our home into somewhere that no one else will have to only long for on a deathbed – we can all live it for real, starting today.
Slán a fhágáil, Jack. And thank you.