Canadians today are rightly focusing today on Jack Layton’s legacy of optimism and integrity, and his inspiring, transcendent and completely heartbreaking final letter to Canadians. His letter, which I find difficult to read straight through right now, cannot be praised highly enough. Its call to justice and service, and focus on creating a better future for all Canadians, convey a forward-looking sense of what it means to be Canadian better than pretty much anything I’ve read in my lifetime. We could all do a lot worse than to aspire to the goals and vision of Canada toward which Layton urges us here.
We Canadians have, I think, a tendency to treat our history lightly. I hope that this letter is remembered for decades to come. Fortunately, if my Facebook feed is anything to go by, we won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.
For me, what I’ll remember is Layton’s willingness to stake out policy positions because they were
the correct policies, even if they were unpopular. The most obvious example of this was Layton’s observation that negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan were inevitable. For that, he was labelled by Conservative MPs and other right-wing critics as “Taliban Jack,” essentially calling him a traitor. Everyone might be calling him “Smiling Jack Layton” today, but Google hits for “Taliban Jack” Layton outnumber those for “Smiling Jack” Layton by 2 to 1.
Of course, it turned out he was right, as the Conservative government eventually acknowledged, in actions if not in words.
I also admired how he balanced principle with pragmatism. When he was president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, I saw his presentation to the House of Commons Finance Committee, for which I worked as an analyst. I had read about how, as a Toronto City councillor, he would deal with anyone to advance his (concrete) policy goals, but I remember being particularly impressed at how down-to-earth, reasonable and doable his policy objectives were. They responded to a pressing need (in this case housing) that would make life demonstrably better for disadvantaged Canadians.
And he was willing to do what it took to get policies enacted. As Toronto Councillor Norm Kelly commented, “I think Jack’s strength was if he couldn’t win you over on an issue 100 per cent, he would settle for 75 or 50 to advance the issue, and he’d do it with a smile.”
With that combination of commitment to social justice, willingness to compromise and understanding of what really matters to Canadians, I was very happy when Layton ran for the NDP leadership, and even happier when he won. From my outsider’s perspective, he set the NDP on exactly the right course needed to be relevant to the needs of Canadians in the 21st century.
In his final letter to Canadians, Layton urges all Canadians to “consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.” Layton’s life was a testament to this spirit. Now that he’s gone, it falls to the rest of us to continue his work, no matter the odds.