Followers of Jack Layton could be forgiven for being angry. As a country we usually wait to lionize federal New Democratic leaders until after they have left active politics. Layton, alone among their number, was able to command public esteem and large numbers of votes at the same time. The Liberals challenged him to an election fight, confident that he would falter like his predecessors; they were sure that the hype would deflate and that the people’s attention would wander, as it always had before. Like some 19th-century schoolmaster, Layton took up his cane and taught them a lesson.
The national political stage was left with two opposing figures—one not quite as easy to like as the other—in an otherwise bare landscape. And then, just like that, Jack was gone.
The timing could not have been more cruel; the frank cosmic injustice with which the rivals of the Prime Minister have been swept away, as if Providence had a soft spot for him, strains the limits of belief. In his last years, Layton came to personify the spirit of downtown Toronto—those arpents of elite-trodden pavement which, for better or worse, are a beacon of “progressive” instinct and multicultural practice for the whole Dominion. Inner Toronto has had to watch much of its political pre-eminence recede in recent years, and it now faces the greatest morale catastrophe of all. There will be disillusionment, and there will be rage.
But such sour notes, somehow, played no part at all in the memorial service held for Layton on Aug. 27 at Roy Thomson Hall. In principle, the affair could have turned out like the 2002 service held for Minnesota Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone—an event so wild and rancorous, with boos and castigations hurled at Republicans in attendance, that the resulting public distaste is said to have swung elections for years afterward. Wellstone, like Layton, was a dynamic, attractive, uncompromising reflection of the political left in a place where the left has special standing. Like Layton, he was taken away while still young, in a horrible, unexpected way—in Wellstone’s case, an airplane crash.
But that ugliness was not repeated here, and the difference is perhaps as simple as this: Canada is not the U.S. Our Constitution, though its monarchical component is attenuated and de-glamourized, still vests supreme power in a nonpartisan (and usually outright absent) figurehead. That put party politics in their proper place and makes possible a genteel human gesture like the PM’s decision to grant Layton a state funeral. Both men served the same Crown and the same cause. At such a time, the notion of a “loyal Opposition” is no mere tic of language.
There was no precedent for holding a state funeral for an Opposition leader who died in office without having been prime minister. Layton’s passing is the first time since Confederation such a thing has happened. Some criticized the move, as if the minor trouble it will put us to, once a century or so, were a serious problem. But in the panoply of Canadian democracy, an Opposition leader is certifiably the near-equal of a cabinet minister; in fact, he immediately follows the cabinet in the official table of precedence. The story of our country has not been, and will not be, written only by election winners.
The royal tenor of our government influences our souls in continual small ways, and one likes to think it made a Wellstone-like spectacle impossible for us, almost impossible even to contemplate. As Montesquieu said, the guiding principle of republics is virtue, but that of monarchies is honour; and honour is precisely how Layton’s obsequies differed from Paul Wellstone’s. Was the event partisan? It could not have been otherwise, for party politics were the pith of Jack Layton’s life. Stephen Lewis, unabashed by the presence of Conservative and Liberal mourners, spoke out boldly for social democracy and for social justice.
But there was no hatred, no singling or calling out of individual enemies, no plea to the high heavens to come crashing down on the skull of the Conservative tyrant. No New Democrat used the occasion as an opportunity for free political advertising, despite the large television audience. Jack’s people marked his passing in a manner that was politically correct without overweening ridiculousness; musical without being corny or tasteless; populist without being anarchic or ugly. Politicians spoke of love, respect, and civility, and, if for a moment, there was no incongruity in the words.
This week’s issue dedicates 24 pages to the man, his life, his career, his legacy, and the future of his party, in words and pictures. For it is to the credit of the New Democrats that if the nation should someday need to mourn a sitting Opposition leader again, we will now have a model worthy of consultation. For one last time, Jack Layton helped his party dispel some of the stigma of unseriousness that has traditionally clung to it. That will be the key to his legacy, most likely. He will not be remembered, as Tommy Douglas is, for some signature policy achievement. It is hard to say he was less cynical or flawed than any other politician. It was as a man that he became captivating at the end of his life: a husband, a grandfather, a sincere public servant, a fighter whose weapons were humour and energy and hope. Politics is the art of the possible, and for Canada, Jack Layton redefined the possible just a little bit.