Layton: the final enigma

Eventually, Canada will begin to oblige men in Layton’s position to be excruciatingly forthright about their health

[Olivia Chow] won’t reveal the nature of [Jack Layton’s] final illness: “Jack’s wish is that we don’t talk precisely about what kind because we want to give other cancer patients the kind of hope they deserve and should have. If we talk about this kind of cancer, or that, then if you have that particular kind, you would be really worried…” –The Star, Tuesday

Pardon me, fellow Canadians, but this is preposterous. Olivia Chow’s explanation doesn’t even make sense on its own terms: in the absence of information about what kind of cancer killed Jack Layton, patients with any kind of cancer at all might be frightened or upset by his sudden demise. She is denying us information that could ease the minds of the vast majority of these people. But then, this isn’t the first time we’ve been given a strained, unconvincing excuse for secrecy when it comes to Jack Layton’s health, though it is likely to be the last.

When Jack Layton was first diagnosed with prostate cancer last year, his secretary Brad Lavigne told Canadians that we would not be receiving details of Layton’s treatment because, basically, we are too stupid to handle it. Cancer sufferers, Lavigne argued, might perceive such a disclosure “as general medical advice” and conclude that the same therapies “might be suitable for them.” This was an amazingly brazen answer in an era in which “awareness” is worshipped like a tiki. Jack Layton might have been the first cancer victim in decades who believed that his disease did not provide him with a morally binding opportunity to educate others—that, in fact, his duty was to conceal. The question nobody asked: what if there were prostate cancer patients who might learn, by means of Layton’s example, of a treatment that was truly “suitable”?

Instead, Lavigne’s bizarre rationale was accepted, and questions about Layton’s later hip fracture were shrugged off, even though Canadians have abundant, well-founded reasons to suspect politicians, as a group, of habitually queue-jumping and seeking private care outside the country. The NDP cannot shut up about how Tommy Douglas gave us medicare like some cornball Prometheus bringing fire unto primeval man; its leaders therefore might be regarded as having a special responsibility to rise above such suspicions.

This would be the case even if Layton hadn’t availed himself controversially of private clinics in the past, and it would be the case even if it weren’t for the mysterious affair of April’s disappearing “hip replacement”, when we were all asked to believe that Layton’s sister, who was travelling with him and essentially acting his physical therapist, got an exceedingly rudimentary detail of his treatment wrong. Could happen! It would have been awfully simple for him to confirm it with medical evidence!—he said so himself, and offered to provide that evidence!

But by that time, no one in a position to ask was interested: the adversarial relationship between politician and media had already broken down. It has been pointed out incessantly in defence of Layton’s privacy that Canada, unlike the U.S., has not established a full-disclosure norm in health matters for important politicians. What nobody observes is that the U.S. adopted this norm for very good reasons—reasons with labels like Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy. Long experience of republican government has taught Americans that politicians will tell merciless, outrageous lies about their health status to secure electoral advantage unless a full-disclosure norm is aggressively enforced by the press.

Jack Layton, of course, was never the chief magistrate of a republic—just a man who claimed to be running for our prime ministership in earnest, and, later, a officer of state with responsibility for assembling and leading an alternative government. Still, eventually Canada will, like the U.S., begin to oblige men in his position to be excruciatingly forthright about their health. And eventually someone will spill the beans about what killed him. In the meantime, 4.5 million Canadians who voted for a party led by Jack Layton will just have to wait and see what they actually end up with.

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