The Strange Posthumous Popularity of Jack Layton
By Cam Mather
For my American readers I should explain that Jack Layton, the official leader of the opposition in our Parliament (kind of like your Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner) died recently. There was a huge outpouring of grief in Canada, almost way more than it seemed that the occasion warranted. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me.
Now don’t get me wrong, I really liked Jack Layton. I never voted for him, but he was a nice guy. Jack led the New Democratic Party, or NDP, which is Canada’s democratic socialist party. To some Americans “socialist” is a dirty word, but here in Canada most of us are comfortable having a socialist party around. Tommy Douglas, one of the founding members of the NDP, was a preacher from Saskatchewan who fought his whole life for universal healthcare. It wasn’t until the other political parties saw how popular this was in the 60s that they latched on to it and implemented it. The NDP also fought for things like the Canada Pension Plan, Unemployment Insurance, a minimum wage … just about any socially progressive legislation is a result of their influence. They have never ever held power federally, but they are by far the most populist party the country has ever had and the reason we have these programs.
But most people never voted for the NDP. Heck, most people didn’t vote for our current Conservative government, but our archaic “first past the post” system allows them to form a majority government with only 39.62% of the popular vote. Now that’s democracy!
In the last election Jack Layton’s NDP got 30% of the vote and formed the opposition, mostly as a backlash against the Bloc Quebecois in Québec. Jack had only been Leader of the Opposition for a couple of months before he had to resign to deal with another round of cancer.
While it’s very sad that he died and especially sad that he died of cancer, I still can’t get my head around the response of so many Canadians. He was the first leader of the opposition since about 1897 or something to get a state funeral. Thousands and thousands of people walked past his coffin at the Parliament buildings. Thousands stood by the road whenever they moved his coffin. Tens of thousands wanted to go the funeral to the point that they had to set up a huge TV outside for the crowds.
While I think that this outward display of emotion is a good thing, I just can’t explain it. Jack was a former Toronto Councilor who got into federal politics. In the 2008 election he only got 18% of the popular vote. So why was there such an over-the-top outpouring of grief for a guy most of them never voted for?
It seems to me today everything has to be over the top. It has to be extreme. When someone well known dies their front walkway is quickly covered in a sea of cut flowers. It’s not enough to have junk food at the Canadian National Exhibition, you have to have a burger on a Krispee Kreme donut with bacon and cheese that has more calories than a human should eat in a day. Sports have to be extreme. You can’t even just play poker anymore, you have to have ultimate, extreme, high stakes poker championships. Where’s this all coming from? Is this just the logical direction of capitalism? If so, where does it end?
I am not being critical of anyone for his or her grief about Jack Layton. I was very sad too, especially after the fall Michelle and I had. Jack and his party represent the reason I have such a high standard of living. His party has always fought for a more equitable distribution of the wealth that a country like Canada can generate.
Running a business on the scale that Michelle and I do, if we were in the U.S. I’m not sure we could afford reasonable healthcare, and Michelle’s breast cancer might have bankrupted us. As it was, it didn’t cost a dime, other than lost productivity. My Mom, who had several surgeries and chemo to deal with her pancreatic cancer before she died, and my Dad’s knee replacement and on-going back problems, cost our healthcare system hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they never had to pay a penny out of pocket.
I think most Canadians “get” how lucky we are to have such a system. And I think what Jack’s death showed is that they also “get” why we have such a system. While it may have been brought in by Liberals or Conservatives, it would never have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for those socialist NDPers. We can have a minimum wage, and social support programs, and healthcare, and still have innovative, world-class companies like the “Blackberry” maker Research In Motion.
Jack Layton spoke at a Canadian Solar Industries meeting I went to a few years ago. My daughter Nicole was a Political Science student at university at the time so I convinced her to come to the meeting. Jack, like all chameleon-like politicians, played to the audience, and told the story of how his engineer father helped his sons to design a system using the sun to heat the family’s swimming pool. This extended the season and was particularly important since swimming gave his mother relief from her arthritis. From there Jack went on to explain how he basically invented the solar industry in Canada in the 1960s, or so Nicole and often joked whenever we discussed Jack. I’m sure when he spoke to the Canadian Widget Manufacturer’s Association he was instrumental in their industry as well, as all good politicians would be.
Jack smiled a lot, road his bike all the time, and mostly said nice things about people. And that seemed to resonate with Canadians. I have no doubt that my steel-working, life-long-union-member, NDP-supporting father-in-law Lorne welcomed Jack at the pearly gates along with Tommy Douglas. I believe the three of them are discussing politics as I write and trying to get a more equitable distribution of all things of importance up there.
In the meantime, those of us down here who have been the recipients of their vision for social justice will look forward to seeing who is chosen as the new leader of the NDP to fill his shoes. His bicycle-riding shoes. We may never vote for them, but we’re glad they’ll be around.