The Commons: On the passing of a politician

Jack Layton was always “on.” He was never not “Jack Layton.”

“You know me.”

This is campaign rhetoric, like anything else a politician says to an audience, like anything a politician says to get a vote. Jack Layton is appealing here to some sense of familiarity, maybe even fondness. He wants you to think of him as trustworthy, or at least unthreatening. He wants to make some kind of connection.

This is rhetoric. This is sloganeering. This is about who you’d want to have a beer with, however much that is supposed to have a bearing on who would best govern the country. This is politics.

This is also—possibly, just maybe—simply true.


Jack Layton was always “on.” He was never not “Jack Layton.” He was never not acting and sounding and gesturing and smiling like a politician. He did and said all the things “politicians” are supposed to do and say. He pumped his first and pointed his finger and shook your hand and looked you in the eye. He spoke in that voice. He showed interest in otherwise mundane things. He had causes and demands and complaints and hopes and proposals.

It could be awkward and silly. It was easy to laugh and roll your eyes: at his tone and his manner. It was tempting to be patronizing—”Oh Jack, on again about the grave injustice of this and the obvious righteousness of that. Come off it. Take a break, man.” It was difficult to accept, like an act you wanted him to drop.

He was periodically compared to a car salesman. And for sure he could be, it must be said, quite corny. But maybe even Jack Layton could see that in “Jack Layton.”

Here, for instance, is how he once described life with his wife, Olivia Chow, a fellow city councillor and, later, a fellow member of parliament: “Every night when we come home, around 11, we’ll discuss the issues as we sit at the kitchen table. We try to rule out getting into too many long discussions when we’re going to bed, but it doesn’t always work. Issues are always on the agenda, there’s no time out from that. The marriage is built all around that, it sounds corny but it’s our way of celebrating life—working a lot, trying to help build a more just, equitable and environmentally sound planet for the next generations.”

And here, 12 years later, after prostate cancer and the birth of his granddaughter, is how he described his outlook on life: “You become a little more sanguine about some of the day-to-day things and just really focus on how can we make this world a better place. It sounds corny, but it’s not corny at all.”

If it’s not at all corny maybe that’s because it’s who he was. And who he was is this: a man who would spend his first Christmas Eve with the new love of his life drafting a nutrition policy for the local school board. A man who turned his home into a model of renewable energy policy and opened the front door to whoever might need his living room to organize a meeting. “It’s ultimately not a show,” his son, Mike, told this magazine earlier this year. “He’s being himself. He’s just incredibly excited about the work he does.”

And maybe that’s true. And maybe that means Jack Layton wasn’t really “on.” Maybe he just was.


Jack Layton was a politician. There really wasn’t much effort made at hiding this. It was unavoidable, in fact. He enthused about fighting on your behalf. He vowed not only to work for you, but work with others to get things done. His greatest accomplishment might’ve been a budget amendment. He was, at once, everything we’ve been taught to be suspicious of and everything we presently long for. He was a clichéd, corny, almost hackneyed character pitching hope and change and optimism and compromise.

“You know where I stand. You know I’m a fighter,” he said on the last night of this spring’s remarkable campaign. “And I won’t stop until the job’s done.”

Indeed, he was unrelenting. He proposed and he demanded and he smiled. Presented (regularly) with reasons to stop doing any or all of those things, he smiled harder. At some point or another, he became “Jack.” At some point later, some four and a half million people decided they wanted to vote for the party he led. And now, somehow, he seems entirely deserving of an adjective like “beloved.” And if there were times when the affection for him might’ve seemed “hip,” there was no irony to him. (Maybe he was the last unironic person on Earth.) And there was profound emotion in his final words and there seems genuine emotion in those who now mourn his passing.

He had been doing this for so long. And then suddenly everything changed. And then suddenly he was gone.

But go back to that statement he made last month, when he looked and sounded so sick. “I am as hopeful and optimistic about all of this as I was the day I began my political work, many years ago,” he said. “I am hopeful and optimistic about the personal battle that lies before me in the weeks to come. And I am very hopeful and optimistic that our party will continue to move forward. We will replace the Conservative government, a few short years from now.”

And read that last letter. “In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you,” he told Canadians. “My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.”

If you look closely, it doesn’t seems there is a line here. “Jack Layton” isn’t taking a break so Jack Layton can confront cancer. There is a personal matter, but it does not obscure the political goal. And so the life ends, but the life’s work must go on.

If we knew Jack Layton it was as this: a politician. And if we really knew Jack Layton—if that’s really possible—it’s because the politician we knew wasn’t any different from the person he was. Not only that he believed in this stuff, but that he lived this stuff. He was a politician. And if he is remembered for any overarching idea, perhaps it will be for all the good that can represent.

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