Jack Layton (1950-2011).
First, you cry.
I have lost one of my best friends.
We have lost one one of the best friends Canada ever had. A man devoted to helping others. And in doing so with obvious relish for the life he loved living out loud. Doing so with goodwill and humor in such overflowing abundance that he could not help in his occasional over-exuberance of rhetoric and uncompromising pursuit of social justice to be among the most agreeable role models of how to comfort others. Reminding us, as George Eliot insisted, that genuine community is our highest calling, and easily within the grasp of us all.
He has not died, will never die. He has lived among us since those who walk erect first populated this blessed part of the world. He holds open the door for you, stops to help gather the groceries you've spilled on the sidewalk. He rises in Parliament, city council, the board of health, to obtain comfort and justice on others' behalf. He Intercedes in bar fights and legislative brawls with calm entreaties to "jaw-jaw, not war-war," a favorite expression of Layton's from Churchill.
He lives in the heart and mind of a friend of mine in her twenties who interrupted her promising career in banking to work with CUSO in Tanzania and has the wisdom gained from that experience to think of when managing the retirement funds of Montrealers. And in the Newfoundlanders who brought air travelers traumatized on 9/11 into their homes, unbidden. And in a new friend of mine, in his 60s and a Californian but raised in Pittsburgh and a near-longlong Pirates fan, who on catching a foul ball at his first Pirates game at the Pirates' home field last Friday, turned and gave the talisman to a 9-year-old girl behind him with her glove outstretched during the first five innings.
Jack is descended from an unbroken chain of generations of elected officeholders to serve in New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario since before Confederation. His ancestors carried the colors of almost half a dozen political parties. Jack's son, Mike, continues the tradition of elected public service. (Michael Layton is councillor for Toronto's Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina.*)
But Jack traveled without an entourage. It was known to only a very few that he had earned a Ph.D. and been among the most popular lecturers at some of Canada's best schools, and had toiled in business as a green-technologies entrepreneur and knew intimately the triumphs and frustrations of small business,
And so there was no sense of entitlement about him for all his high station, accomplishments, career tenure and renown. The infrastructure improvements for which he'd fought as head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, representing the more than 80% of us who live in cities. The comforting measures for Main Street he successfully pressured governments to make. The affordable housing he got built. The victims of slumlords he relocated to decent shelter without a scintilla of publicity earned or sought.
Thus teens and seniors waved their good wishes to him on the streets of his Broadview riding and came up to him, greeting him as "Jack" (rarely Mr. Layton and of course never "Dr."). And in the souvlaki and dim sum venues and pool halls we haunted - even early this year, when he knew from the groundwork he had done especially in Quebec, that his party was heading toward Official Opposition status for the first time in its 79-year-history - Jack was among the most approachable people I'll ever know.
He'd listen to a restaurateurs' half-hour zoning complaint then offer some helpful suggestions for dealing with city hall, where he'd been a veteran councillor, even knowing his constituent didn't absorb these because the man just wanted to vent. The teens didn't ask for autographs. The girls flirted and talked with him as if assured that in his iPod were stored some of their own favorite tunes (true), then wished him well in a lingering sort of way as he vowed that the best was yet to come. With the guys he talked about Parliamentary hijinks and the Leafs.
Layton had a knack for being right - in fighting the odious discrimination against gays and lesbians in the 1970s; in confronting the ubiquity of spousal abuse with the White Ribbon campaign he helped launch in the 1980s, in his repeated warnings in the 1990s about the imminent hollowing out of Canada's manufacturing sector; and in his opposition to the war in Afghanistan to which his country was committing our treasure and precious blood, which we do not have in abundance.
He believed in la survivance, the centuries-old project to protect and strengthen the French fact in North America, to the point of opposing the Clarity Act against the wishes of many in his own federal NDP caucus. He was a federalist, no less imbued with the Canadian project than a distant relative, William Steeves, a father of Confederation from New Brunswick. But he took people as he found them; his starting point was their worldview. And so he brought to a recent NDP convention a woman Afghan legislator to speak on how the Western fighting and occupation in her country made her fellow Afghans feel they were being re-colonized, not helped - a perspective not widely reported in the Western media, and certainly not ours, but manifesting itself every day in our failures there.
We knew this was coming, but I can't describe the pain. I will be forever grateful to Olivia Chow for arranging for Jack and I to meet a last time two weeks ago; he was strong of mind and heart to the end. My own heart is swollen with sorrow for Oliva, Jack's wife and stalwart companion; for Sally Halford, mother of Jack's two children; for those children, Mike and Sarah; and for Jack's mother, Doris, predeceased by her husband, a businessman and Mulroney-era MP and chair of the federal Tory caucus.
It costs nothing to be kind and wish kindness for others. I saw this from Jack in our gambols, and had it to think on when we were apart. Yes, resolve and persistence are needed in the heavy lifting required to shed our retrograde fears and embrace with a trusting heart a better future we can't be certain of. Mostly what slows our advance to that better place is a worry that none will follow us, that we will fail, be mocked, even vilified. But the treasures stored up here on Earth from that sunny approach pay dividends in immeasurable quantity in fellowship and the shedding of pointless suspicions and resentments.
And so my friend will live on, once I am past this week of tears, as one of many among us who see the world not just as it is, but as it can be and will be - a caring society, first, last and always. Innovative, of course. Prosperous, we ardently hope. But the first of these is caring.
*An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Layton's son as Chris.