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Brushes With Jack

Brushes With Jack

New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton died today at sixty-one.

Jack Layton in Kensington Village last year. Photograph by Ingelbert.

I met Jack Layton for the first and only time in September of 2006, when the NDP was heading into a national convention in Quebec City. Jack had recently announced his support for withdrawing Canadian troops from Afghanistan, and his people had arranged a blitzkrieg of interviews with student journalists in Montreal. (In those days, Official Opposition status was just a twinkle in Jack's eye, and the NDP lavished plenty of attention on students.) We met for our interview in a hotel bar. Jack ordered red wine. When my student paper's photographer snapped a picture of him with the glass at his lips, he said, firmly and smilingly, that he didn't allow people to take photos of him eating or drinking. Jack was a man who knew how to manage his image.

Being not just a student journalist but a student leftist, I had prepared an arsenal of what I thought were hard-hitting questions. Why had the NDP just announced its support for mandatory minimum prison sentencing, a hallmark of conservative justice policy? Why did the NDP support withdrawing from Afghanistan but not from Haiti, where the RCMP was training a police force accused of committing human-rights abuses? Would the NDP ever be relevant in Quebec? (I got my answer, eventually.) At the end of our occasionally heated interview, Jack graciously told me that my questions were well-researched, and, although I styled myself his critic, I was more flattered than I wanted to admit. He was Jack Layton, after all, and I was a fucking nobody.

Jack always had his feet in two worlds: the world of big-P Politics, of Ottawa, of Toronto City Council, of optics, of polls, of policies he might have known were wrong but supported anyway because he wanted to win elections, goddammit. The other world was that of small-p progressivism, of organizing, of social democracy. Jack's great challenge and great skill were straddling those worlds, and I didn't envy him that impossible task. Even more so than the "big-tent" Liberals, the NDP is expected to please a lot of different people: union brass, environmentalists, yuppies, farmers, feminists, the unemployed, Quebecers. The NDP, alone among the major parties, even tries to please people like me—those who don't want to be wooed.

Jack, his smile hard-wired under that famous moustache, was an optimist. Although the NDP might soon shrug off the mantle of socialism, the roots of that much-maligned ideology were always evident in him; if he was not a believer in utopia, he at least believed that we could treat each other better, much better. This was why he vacillated between that thousand-watt grin and the bulldog tenacity he reserved for enemies like Stephen Harper. Jack was happy, mostly, but never happy enough.

Jack Layton was a politician, so he lived his life in public. Because the NDP didn't seem capable of a real electoral breakthrough until very recently, he never got as much attention as he wanted. He passed away in private, though, and we still don't know what kind of cancer finally won out. For his entire professional life, Jack has been many things to many people: fearless leader, Starbucks socialist, bike-riding hippie, fiery city councillor. Jack's leadership of the NDP outlasted Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff; he single-handedly humiliated the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois; he arguably brought his party more historic victories than anyone else. But cancer is its own hateful thing, not an election to win or a foe to be outsmarted or a scandal to be suppressed. Cancer is just a disease, and Jack Layton was just a man—a man who was sometimes victorious and sometimes not, a man with his own life and own internal struggles, a man with a family, a man who will be remembered and missed.

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