Le bon Jack

I had only two close encounters with Jack Layton. The first was back in late 2002 or early 2003, when he and some members of McGill’s NDP club came into Café Santropol, where I was waiting tables. I can’t quite remember whether he’d already won the NDP leadership or whether he was still campaigning for it. Either way, I knew who he was and was glad when he ended up sitting in my section.

When I got to his table, I nervously introduced myself to “Mr. Layton,” at which point he quickly corrected me, asking that I call him “Jack.” For the next 10 or 15 minutes, I ignored every other table in the restaurant and chatted with Jack—about poverty, federalism, my job, the NDP in Quebec. He knew he had his work cut out for him in la belle province, but he exuded optimism, so much so I figured he’d never actually looked up his party’s dreadful numbers in the province.

Eventually, my fellow waiters started giving me the evil eye, and I reluctantly pulled away from Jack’s table with an invitation to come back later if I had a few minutes to talk. For the rest of the night, I was too busy to do anything else but bring Jack and his entourage their food. But when Jack came to the till to settle his table’s bill, he gave me his email address and told me to keep in touch. He then shook my hand and gave me a great tip.

The second time was this spring, just as the federal election campaign was nearing its end and, as it were, on the morning a CROP poll had come out showing the NDP leading the Bloc in Quebec. Though he looked a bit frail and gaunt, Jack was positively glowing, like he knew the NDP had finally broken through. He was at Maclean’s HQ on that morning to meet with our hastily-assembled “editorial board.” For the next hour or so, and despite the fact he wasn’t on the friendliest of turf, Jack made no apologies for his party’s program, most notably defending the NDP’s distinct appeals to nationalist Quebecers. The NDP, he said, was in the process of “building a house”—a project he’d started way back when we first met.

“The first thing you do is dig a hole, that’s not very interesting, then the next thing you do is lay footing, that’s an ugly piece of concrete, and then you start building the foundation wall, and the problem is that for our party we never built one quarter of the foundation, and then we started building the house and then the wind came along and down it went,” he told us. “And I said, ‘We’re going to take our time here, we’re going to do this right, and we’re going to build that foundation.’ And we’ve done that now.”

After our meeting, I chatted with Jack’s longtime press secretary, Karl Bélanger, who excitedly pulled out his BlackBerry to show Charlie Gillis and me the poll results that had come out that morning. Like his boss, Bélanger was clearly overjoyed with the results. By then, of course, the NDP leader had come to be known as “un bon Jack” (a good guy) in Quebec. I was nonetheless skeptical. After everyone was done mingling, Jack limped off towards the elevators, cane in hand, and went out and won Quebec.

Now, I won’t pretend either encounter was somehow unique. In fact, what’s most amazing about all the testimonials coming out today is how ordinary they make my interactions with Jack seem. Still, they left a lasting impression. Eight years after we first ran into each other, I’d moved on to an entirely different—sometimes hostile—gig; but Jack, well, he was still the same earnest, engaging, and cheerful man who’d once invited the guy bringing him a sandwich in a Montreal café to sit down and talk shop.