I’m sure that Jack Layton had a special place in his heart for Sudbury. Although not from these parts, Layton connected with spirit of the community, and identified with our struggles and challenges. Over the past several years, he was a frequent visitor to our community, taking part in rallies hosted by the United Steelworkers Local 6500 during their year-long strike at Vale (formerly INCO). He also came on other occasions to talk with, and most importantly, to listen to the concerns of ordinary citizens.
My first memories of Jack Layton came from watching CFTO’s 6 o’clock news when I was a teenager in Brampton in the mid 1980s. Back then, Layton was a municipal Councillor known for doing something a little outrageous every now and then. With wild hair and a big moustache. Layton would show up to Council meetings in jeans. Layton, a former Ryerson professor, was always a part of the urban background noise of my teenage years.
When I first started commuting to Ryerson for school, I had time to follow Toronto’s municipal politics in greater detail, as there always seemed to be a newspaper to pick up and read on the GO Train or GO Bus. Given that my profs were very Toronto-centred, I figured it was best to start paying more attention to what has happening in the big city. Layton wasn’t always front page news by any stretch, but he was always there, moving his causes forward, sometimes in the public eye, sometimes not. His causes weren’t always my causes, but they were ones he took on passionately, and in the belief that he was doing what’s best for Toronto.
When he became the head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, he brought renewal and activism to that organization. I was just beginning my career at that time, and I remember thinking that a committed urbanist like Layton would do a lot of good leading a cross-country association of municipalities. When it comes to assessing what the needs of cities are, Layton understood. His activism was apparent in his leadership, and when he left the FCM to run as leader for the New Democratic Party, he left behind a legacy of success which is still apparent today.
Whether you liked Jack Layton’s politics or not, it’s difficult to deny his ability to make personal connections. When I think about what successful politicians have to do in order to appear sincere with voters (which doesn’t always come naturally), I know that Layton never had to be taught any tricks. For Layton, they weren’t “tricks” at all; they were just the right thing to do. To listen to people when the talk, to make eye contact and show emotion. To empathise with people sharing their personal stories. To show respect to others with whom he quite clearly disagreed, by not interrupting, or using uncomfortable body language.
Jack Layton always cared about what people had to say to him.
I only ever spoke to Layton once, and then just for the briefest of moments. It was outside the Sudbury Arena on the day of one of the earliest rallies put together by USW Local 6500. I was there with a number of Green Party supporters, to show solidarity with Union. Layton was being ushered into the arena by his handlers, but he was sure to offer a handshake a few words to everyone on the way in. In our green t-shirts with partisan logos, it was clear that we weren’t on the same team – but on this day, it didn’t matter. We’d come together to support the same good cause. Layton could have walked on by, but instead he shook my hand. I told him that it was great he had come to our community. He told me thanks, and that this fight was everybody’s fight.
My politics and Layton’s haven’t been the greatest fit, as anyone who might regularly read my blog must know. Layton’s heart, though, was always in the right place, and he spent his life trying to do what he thought was best for Canadians. He understood that the current political structure needed to be challenged, which led him to the NDP. He courageously battled in what he perceived to be the interests of the common person, and against the forces which sought to sideline the efforts and aspirations of common people.
It was with tremendous sadness that I heard about Jack passing away earlier today. He cared about Canada’s future, and he cared about Canadians. He cared about my community, and all of the communities across the nation which were looking for ways to do better. He was a tireless Canadian hero, who has left us much too soon.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)
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