I probably shouldn’t have been so shocked by this morning’s news that Jack Layton has died at the age of 61. At his announcement last July, when he told Canadians he was stepping aside temporarily as NDP leader to fight a new incidence of cancer, you needed only to look at him to know that struggle was a serious one.
But I’m still reeling from the news, maybe because Jack always radiated so much vitality, in person as well as on camera.
There are people who knew Jack far better than I did, who worked with him much more closely and over years, instead of the month and a half or so that I can talk about. They’ll have much more to say about Jack Layton and his legacy; for now, I’ll just offer this.
As his speechwriter in the 2004 federal campaign, there was always that thrilling moment when he would take the words I’d written an hour or two before, and lift them – not just from the page, but beyond the podium. There’s speaking as an obligatory act, speaking as performance, but rarely a politician can turn speaking into a way of genuinely connecting with an audience, and that’s what I saw the few times I got to watch Jack deliver one of those speeches in person.
While I did most of my speechwriting from the Ottawa headquarters and from my hotel room, I got to sit with him for a while on a flight to Whitehorse, as we talked about a few of his upcoming speeches – in particular, the one he’d be giving to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. Although he’d left municipal politics behind a few years ago, his passion for Canada’s cities hadn’t dimmed a bit. And I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anyone with as much focus, determination and confidence in what he was saying.
We spoke a few times after that flight in the run-up to the FCM speech, and he had me speak to several other people as well. In strict electoral terms, it was probably much more time than the speech’s likely impact warranted. But Jack was devoted to urban policy. And while the speech veered into wonkish territory – always a danger in an election, where you risk either rolled eyes from reporters or an ambush from opposition researchers eager to seize on an out-of-context detail – it was also very much a reflection of the man who delivered it.
Jack died too young, never having had the chance he’d earned to lead that historic Official Opposition in Parliament. If he allowed that enormous unfairness to cause him any bitterness, it doesn’t show in his final message to Canadians.
Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and 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.
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.