Le Bon Jack

Layton's roots, candor made him a favourite son in Quebec

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Sun Media, Friday, August 26, 2011

Jack Layton’s life and legacy were redefined by his grace and courage in the face of illness.

Before he was struck with cancer a year and a half ago, he was seen as someone who lived for the on-camera moments that were all about him. And then, after he announced he had prostate cancer, Canadians saw another side of Layton, one that considered the prospect of death every day, on his own terms.

And living a very public life, he found the most private reserves of courage. But before his illness and since, he always had two objectives — making the NDP relevant to Canadian politics and raising the civility of our public discourse.

He succeeded, admirably, in both. The NDP has always been the party of solidarity forever. Layton was more interested in winning.

Though he was very much aware of protecting his base, he was more interested in broadening it. As to the politics of civility, he meant it, and led by example in lowering his voice in Question Period.

When he said the NDP, as official Opposition, wouldn’t heckle in the House, hoots of derision could be heard from all sides, only making his point.

Layton’s electoral legacy is one by which all his NDP successors will be measured.

He inherited a party, eight years ago, that was on the outer fringes of the mainstream, having barely won recognized status in the House in the 2000 election, and took it all the way to 103 seats and Official Opposition in 2011.

Fifty-nine of those seats were from Quebec, where Layton and luck reduced the Bloc Quebecois from a rabble of 47 seats to a rump of only four.

This was his great service to Canada. He put the boots to the separatists and did it with a smile.

He had a compelling narrative, of the man with the cane, who played through the pain. He didn’t talk about it, he just showed up. And the voters got it, especially in Quebec, where empathy is in the political genes.

In Quebec, last spring, Layton got to drop his last name.He was just Jack. Le bon Jack. The good guy. One of them.

Though he had spent his entire adult life in Toronto, he had grown up in Montreal, as he reminded Quebecers just by showing up in a Canadiens jersey during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

He claimed the mantle of a favourite son, a huge electoral advantage in Quebec.

And then voters flocked to him when Gilles Duceppe promised them another referendum, something they really didn’t want. As a result of the Orange Wave in Quebec, Stephen Harper won a majority in Ontario, where Blue Grits moved massively to the Conservatives to block an NDP-led coalition.

Layton’s greatest challenges, keeping his caucus whole and leading a government in waiting, will be left to his successor as steep learning curves.

“I can’t help but wonder,” said one of his close associates, “how the next 10 years might have been different if he had lived.”

What I will remember most about Layton, other than the gallant campaign, is the time we sat in his Centre Block office for an interview.

The conversation turned to his two-year-old granddaughter, and his face lit up with joy.

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