Farewell to Jack

In his 30 years of public life, Jack Layton epitomized the gutsy leadership we should expect from our political figures. Refreshingly optimistic, hopeful and passionate, Layton tirelessly fought to lift up the less fortunate, to grant voices to the voiceless and to show Canadians that they should never settle for anything less than a principled vision for their country.

For those Canadians that became marginalized by the political process, Layton ended their silence and gave them a bully pulpit and a megaphone. With signature cadence and remarkable poise, he achieved a delicate balance between inspiring a future generation of Canadians and to right the wrongs of Canadians stuck in hurt and injustice.

Layton recognized the genuine hardships that First Nations people endure in this country and proposed unprecedented economic and social support. In 2008, he was instrumental in playing a role in the residential schools apology and received thanks from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the floor of the House of Commons.

During the same-sex marriage debate of the early 2000s, Layton stood on principle and insisted the entire caucus vote for equality as a matter of party policy, refusing to shrug off the issue as a free vote as other parties did.

And in foreign policy, where he was often criticized for pie-in-the-sky idealism, through his unwavering opposition to military action in Afghanistan and his unrelenting belief that supporting the troops meant bringing them home, he pushed the debate leftward and prompted questions about the wisdom of a seemingly open-ended commitment.

We have seldom seen the kind of collective national reaction that we have in the hours and days following Layton’s passing. And even when we have, it usually revolved around anger toward government — anger about the Liberal sponsorship scandal, anger about prorogued Parliament — rarely a celebration of party or policy.

Today, it is different. Today, that collective spirit revolves around hope — a profound optimism that visionary and compassionate leaders still exist in our political culture.

The outpour of support for this incredible leader speaks to the moment we have here — and the potential risk if we let it slip by. There was something about Jack Layton’s tenacity that inspired Canadians and continues to inspire them now.

In one way, he was the ultimate people’s leader, fighting for the individual rights of Canadians but forever mindful of the existence of those rights within a broader social weaving. Yet, in another, his tenacious vision was something much bigger — it was a belief that this country has many more progressive battles to wage; that we need not settle now for a government that is “good enough.”

So now, with Layton’s passing, there’s an open space that Canadians only saw Layton occupying — a political figure offering a vision that inspires us to believe that our best accomplishments are ahead. For the first time in several years, the progressive torch is truly without a keeper.

In the months and years to come, the only fitting tribute to Layton is a spirited battle for that torch that focuses on a message that government can exist to solve their problems, that it can be a catalyst for tangible, equitable social change and that it can be a vehicle for promoting international leadership.

There are two ways this could go — one where Canadians let go of the last strand of hope they had for politics or one where they hold onto it and root it with someone capable of bringing it to the forefront once again.

As the two left-leaning parties in Canada launch leadership contests, let the future be their motivation. These contests should focus on the Canada we want to build together, what legacy we want to carve out for our generation.

Liberals need to find their voice. While they can occupy the middle, they need to do it with gusto. They need to find out what they stand for, why they stand for it and why it should matter to Canadians. They need to present a vision for Canada that doesn’t focus on accomplishments of the 1990s. At the same time, NDP leadership candidates cannot just run as successors to Jack Layton’s legacy. And neither party should run with their sights focused on Stephen Harper — a vision for Canada that focuses on what’s wrong with Canada is no vision at all.

The coming years will be transformative years for Canadian politics. The question remains though what will settle as the political norm — comfortable conservatism or purposeful progressivism. Leadership aspirants need to harness the potential that exists among this electorate if they don’t want to see the latter slip away. They need to clearly articulate their visions, showcase their hopes and convince Canadians that the dreams they parked with Jack Layton of a fairer, more just country do not perish.

Canadians need to see that they weren’t naive to hope for a more visionary country. They need to know they weren’t wrong to believe in Jack’s fight for a better country and a better world — they need to know that they weren’t wrong to choose vision over cynicism.