I never met Jack Layton and Jack Layton never met me, but I feel like we would have got along well.
Why? Because everyone who has heard of or met “bon Jack” seems to feel this way. And even though I never met him, I can solemnly claim to have been present at his final appearance and heard his final words to the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, the 23rd of June, 2011. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that it was Layton’s final day in the place where he had for so long defended working (and non-working) Canadians and their interests. My notes taken from the public gallery read that he “switched effortlessly from English to French” as he (fittingly, for what turned out to be his final Parliamentary cause) sought to preserve the rights of postal workers after they had been locked out by Canada Post.
That day, Layton slowly descended the stairs with the aid of a walking cane to take his seat as leader of the Official Opposition, a role he enjoyed for just a few short weeks. His evident physical discomfort did not soften his ferocity, wit and sense of justice, however, as he calmly but stridently put forward a set of policies that were at odds with the Conservative majority sitting opposite.
Less than two months later he was dead, killed by cancer. He was two weeks younger than my mother and two years younger than my father.
There was something heroic, almost Shakespearean, about the final few months of his life. His greatest triumph – becoming leader of the opposition – coincided with his rapidly deteriorating health. Alanis Morissette would call it ironic.
Layton’s death has brought together the full spectrum of Canadians, and in my case non-Canadians, in mourning: Anglophones, francophones, young and old, federalists, separatists, immigrants, journalists, conservatives, liberals, socialists, urbanites, rural dwellers, the wealthy, the downtrodden, temporary guest workers – they all realise now what Layton meant to Canada and what Canada meant to him.
Now that he has gone, there is a palpable sense that he was maybe too good for us.
“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”