The State funeral, the loss of Jack Layton, and what it means for Canadian politics

On September 19, 2011, the 41st Parliament will resume in Ottawa.  The May election resulted in tectonic shifts in Canadian political life  —  the diminishment of the Liberal Party to third party status;  the defeat of two federal leaders – Ignatieff and Duceppe; the reduction of the Bloc Quebecois to four individual members; and the breakthrough election of the first Green Party Member of Parliament.   The rise of Jack Layton from leader of the third Opposition Party in the House to leader of her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was an extraordinary achievement.  As much as the May 3rd election resulted in big changes, the tragic death of Jack Layton has been a devastating blow to the heart of our country. No political fortunes have had such a spectacular rise followed so quickly by such an untimely death.  NDP or not, Canadians felt the pain of triumph turned to ashes; of hopes dashed.

On July 25th Canadians were stunned by Jack Layton’s press conference announcing a leave of absence to concentrate on his health.  No pundit following the election would have imagined that relatively unknown Nycole Turmel would be made interim leader of the Official Opposition.  And despite the deep concern that Jack Layton was frighteningly changed in that July press conference, the news of his death ended all summers.

Canadian political life has rarely experienced the shared mourning and collective grief provoked by Jack Layton’s death.  The only thing in living memory that comes close was the funeral train bearing Pierre Trudeau’s casket as Canadians spontaneously lined the tracks.  Still, the heartfelt grief and chalked walls of Toronto City Hall put me more in mind of the British response to the death of the Princess of Wales. Spontaneous gatherings in public spaces in Montreal and Edmonton, the line ups in Ottawa where his remains had laid in state for public visitation, all surpassed the expectations of even long-time colleagues, like Stephen Lewis.  The reaction has prompted some to ask, “what accounts for this? Why is this country so engrossed in public grieving?” 

The state funeral was also well outside of previous political experience.  It was a generous gesture for the Prime Minister to offer Jack Layton’s widow, Olivia Chow, a state funeral.  It is a rare event even when the death of a public figure has been anticipated through long illness. 

It was a singular event.  I was able to attend the funeral, cancelling, with regret, attending the Pender Fall Fair as well as some celebratory gatherings on Salt Spring Island.  As has happened before in political life, but perhaps not in such high relief, a shared humanity  transcended the partisan.  Sitting with members of all the federal parties, the tears were out of respect for Jack, but the emotions also reflected something above and beyond any one human being.  It spoke to the potential that, despite our deep divisions, we could unite as one community.  

Obviously, those gathered, myself included, had had profound disagreements with Jack Layton over the years.  My own relationship with Jack Layton had begun when he was in Toronto City Council.  I was a huge fan and was very happy when Jack took the reins at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). As Executive Director of Sierra Club of Canada, I was working a lot with FCM, having successfully persuaded the former Minister of Finance, Paul Martin, to set aside $300 million for a climate plan at the municipal level.  I was even happy to support the decision when Jack phoned me to apologize for hiring away Sierra Club’s climate campaigner to run the FCM climate programme.  This is not the time to think about our disagreements.  In the scheme of things, they ceased to matter some time ago.

Protocol determined that in the funeral, I was seated with the other Opposition leaders, just behind Environment Minister Peter Kent and Foreign Minister John Baird, and two  rows behind the former Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.  In the next row, the Prime Minister and the Governor General.  It is hard to imagine deeper adversaries than those who gathered to mourn.  And it is hard to imagine a more ennobling service, a more inspiring and inspired call to shared values, cooperation and an end to what Stephen Lewis so rightly described as “vituperative attacks” in the House.   

As we sang one of my favourite songs from the 1960s, Chet Wilson’s “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now,” I reached forward and took Peter Kent’s hand in one hand and my Bloc colleague Maria Mourani’s hand in the other.  A few MPs near us got the idea, but the notion that we could get all MPs to join in was short-lived. 

One thing should be abundantly clear to all political parties in Canada.  The Canadian people are yearning for a voice that speaks to hope over despair.  We as a community want political leadership that inspires, that seeks ways to work together.  We want an end to the ad hominum attack and hyper-partisan abuse of political foes. 

Rarely does a window of opportunity open for real change such as that which opened in the days following Jack’s death.  In the mingling of the crowd after the service, I spoke with old friends Stephen Lewis and his wife Michele Landsberg about the potential. We held the same question in our minds: Can this outpouring of love and respect for Jack Layton leave a permanent mark on our political culture?

Will the call for greater non-partisanship, cooperation, inspiration and optimism in political life carry us forward into a new political normal? Is such a thing even possible or will the 41st Parliament slide back from the shared sense of community to more routine ritualistic nastiness?    

As your Member of Parliament I pledge to try.