The Commons: Jack Layton and the politics of faith

There is love and there is hope and there is optimism, but there is also policy and debate and conflict

A few minutes before 11, the Parachute Club’s Rise Up began playing over the speakers that had been set up in front of the steps that lead to Centre Block and the Peace Tower. A poster of Jack Layton—leaning forward, looking out intently, shirt and tie, but with the top button of his shirt undone—had been set up on an easel. A small crowd had gathered, some wearing orange shirts or carrying orange signs or clutching orange flowers. Two smaller photos of Mr. Layton adorned the steps, each adorned with a bottle of Orange Crush.

The song ended and the Peace Tower clock rang 11 times for 11 o’clock and the crowd of 200 or so got quiet and a fellow from the Broadbent Institute stepped to the microphone. “We were all moved by the outpouring of affection that followed Jack’s passing last year,” he said. “There was something comforting about so many people talking openly about love. But that was Jack’s greatest strength, his ability to pull people together.”

Next was Nycole Turmel, the Hull-Aylmer MP who stepped in for Mr. Layton last year. “On the first anniversary of Jack’s death,” she said, “we remember him as an exceptional man who fought with hope, love and optimism to make life for every Canadian.”

Finally, Paul Dewar, the Ottawa Centre MP who ran to succeed Mr. Layton as NDP leader. “I remember last year … talking to a couple of young people who had read the letter and then decided that they would leave their imprint. And they put in chalk, just across the way, because security wouldn’t let them do it here, the last paragraph of the letter. And it remained there for a couple of days, just by the bus shelter. And I thought, you know, that’s really what Jack was about, inspiring young people. And talking about, yes, love in politics. Talking about hope and optimism. And it’s really difficult to find politicians who talk about those ideas and sincerely mean it. Jack meant it.”

Love, hope and optimism. These are matters of faith. Which might make them hard to fathom in this context.

We have generally decided that politics is an ugly thing, debased and cynical. “Playing politics” is a terrible thing to do. “Politicization” is to be avoided on sensitive matters. Politicians are not to be trusted and politics is an obscure construct that is removed from the daily life of the average man. At best, it is theatre. “Nothing is personal in politics, because politics is theater,” Michael Ignatieff wrote a couple years into his adventure. “It is part of the job to pretend to have emotions that you do not actually feel.”

Jack Layton defied this idea that there was a difference between the politician we saw and heard and the person who otherwise existed when the cameras were off. Attempts to get him to break character went nowhere. By various accounts there was no distinction. He was a politician. And he revelled in this stuff. “There isn’t anything about campaigning I don’t enjoy,” he said last year, at the end of the first week of that last campaign, when he was still running a distant and doubted third. Maybe that’s how Jack Layton “meant it.” Maybe when he smiled it was because he genuinely and unabashedly loved what he was doing. The search for authenticity is a fool’s errand, but maybe that much was genuine.

(“It is a common spectacle in legislatures for representatives to insult one another in the chamber and then retreat for a drink in the bar afterward,” Mr. Ignatieff claimed in 2007. The trick maybe is in understanding that it is possible to have profound disagreements without hating the individual with whom you disagree. That it is possible to be both political and human. And that however much the professional practice of politics requires projecting one’s voice and gesturing assuredly, the words and the emotions expressed are still meaningful.)

Did that make Jack Layton someone you could believe in? Maybe. Who knows? It is always only just a guess. But the unspoken truth is that there is hope in every vote. Hope that the individual being voted for will somehow help do some good. Or at least hope he will be less bad than the other guy. When Harvey Milk said, “you’ve got to give them hope,” he was speaking of something very specific (the hope that gays and lesbians would take from seeing other gays and lesbians elected to public office), but he was also putting his finger on the central demand of the politician. The politician has to give the voter hope. He has to do various other things, too—silly things, weird things and, sometimes, serious things—but without hope there is nothing. And hope requires faith. And so however much we don’t believe, we still bring ourselves to believe, if even just a little bit.

In the 12 months since Jack Layton’s final words were put to paper and then scrawled near bus shelters and emblazoned on T-shirts and posters, they have also been mocked. They have been turned around to chide the party he left behind and the leader who succeeded him when political opponents have judged them to be in contravention of those principles. As a general rule it should probably be considered unseemly to mock someone with the dying words of their dead friend. But it is possible to imagine Jack Layton looking on and smiling and understanding that this is politics too. Because it is all politics. And nothing is, nor should be, sacred. (Disagreement does not preclude respect.) Mr. Layton would no doubt smile too at the protest and demonstration that has marked this past year—the student, the scientists and the doctors in the streets, the points of order and the hours of voting in the House. This was a man whose last act as a party leader was the launching of a filibuster. But he would no doubt know that protest and demonstration can only accomplish so much. This was a man whose legacy includes a significant real estate deal. Politics, like life, is periodically romantic, but mostly practical.

So there is love and there is hope and there is optimism, but there is also policy and debate and conflict. There is ultimately, unavoidably, politics. Because it is all politics. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that.

“He would be telling us all right now to roll up those sleeves, get to work and getting moving with making a difference,” Mr. Dewar continued. “And I have to say, since we have the audience here, there’s a couple of things we need to do. Little bit of homework. We need to restore the help for refugees who have been caught off of access to health care. That’s something that he would want to see done.”

The crowd whooped and applauded.

“And it’s a shame that the Conservatives have cut it,” Mr. Dewar continued, talking over the cheers. “That’s what it means to love. It’s to embrace. Let’s talk about homelessness and let’s get moving shelter to every single Canadian. Let’s stand up for our country as a voice of peace.”

More applause.

“And let’s look to our environment and take care of that,” Mr. Dewar declared.

Mr. Dewar finished and then there were more words from the fellow from the Broadbent Institute. Finally, there was a moment of silence. And then the Peace Tower carillon played O Canada and John Lennon’s Imagine and members of the crowd came forward to place their orange flowers and orange signs on the steps between the two bottles of Orange Crush.