I woke up this morning, having returned from holidays in Alaska on Saturday, early and ready to return to the work day grind. Rain was falling outside my window, which i thought was maybe a little appropriate. I woke before my alarm and turned on my radio to CKNW to hear the morning news before getting out of bed. The 6 AM news broke with the headline that Jack Layton had lost his battle with cancer and died early this morning.
Honestly, I think most of us, certainly any of us who knew Jack, were not surprised - recently his health was obviously deteriorating rapidly and his feisty/fiery attitude had diminished as he was clearly fighting a losing battle with this horrible disease that takes too many too soon. But Ouch !
Since being elected to Port Moody City Council in 2005 , I had the pleasure of meeting Jack, and actually having conversations with him, on several occasions. Real conversations - Jack was a REAL person, very approachable, personable and really a 'man of the people'. He was more than happy to engage in a debate or conversation with anyone at any time. He always had time.
As a former city councillor, Jack understood probably better than, but certainly as well as, any other MP or MLA I have met , the issues that face municipal government and the challenges we face. He could talk for hours on the various issues, thoughtfully and respectfully. He was indeed a pleasure to talk to.
I think Jack was in politics for all the RIGHT reasons. I know we don't think that about all politicians, and certainly many have proven we are right to be suspicious, but I really think Jack's number one goal was to serve Canadians, and to make Canada an even greater country for EVERYONE.
I'll take this time to tell 'my' Jack Layton story... what the hell, it's a blog, if you don't want to read it, you don't have to, but I feel the need to write it...
I was EXTREMELY disappointed in the 'coalition' that the NDP, Liberals and Bloc proposed (formed ? ) in 2008. Extremely.... I really felt this was cheap politics at its best. The Conservatives had won in the election the 'right' to form a minority government, and the three other parties seemed so bitter and determined to undermine our democratic process, it REALLY upset me.
Mostly, it upset me because I had always said about Jack that , even thought I didn't always agree with his 'solutions', I had respect for his understanding of the problems , and his dedication to solving them. But now, I felt he was getting involved in the kind of cheap politics that gave all politicians a bad name, and fuelled public cynicism.
Fast forward to Summer 2009 and the FCM at Whistler. This was the second full FCM conference I was attending and the third FCM convention. FCM brings together ALL Canadian municipalities and its always interesting, maybe amazing, certainly at times amusing, to see the similarities and differences in the challenges we face in different parts of the country.
Obviously, having all of the municipalities of the country in one place is a great venue to make connections for the federal parties, and they usually have a fairly strong contingent on hand to discuss issues with municipal councillors. The leaders of ALL the parties are invited and given the opportunity to address delegates - some show up, some do not. But Whistler was interesting... to see the different styles...
As I headed back to my hotel on day 3 of the conference, I noticed a large entourage approaching .. complete with security , etc. As they came closer, i realized this was Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal Party, and a few other liberal 'heavy weights'. They were surrounded by security and moved quite quickly through the 'corner' of the village, and into a hotel where the security staff informed me I was not welcome. Not very folksy ? Oh well, was mainly curious, never was an Ignatieff fan anyhow.. I share this only as contrast to Jack's appearance.
The other leaders: Prime Minister Stephen Harper has never shown up at any event I have attended since being on council in 2005, so I have no idea if he would be surrounded by security or how approachable he is. I guess you probably have to have security as Prime Minister, and I get that he is a very busy guy... and he normally sends a high ranking minister, such as John Baird and Stockwell Day, and I have enjoyed meeting them, and other ministers, who have been very approachable and friendly, particularly Ministers Baird and Day, and our local MP Minister Moore.
Elizabeth May was in Whistler too of course, and, as always, VERY approachable. I had a nice chat with her, offered her all the success as I always do - I hope we see the green party one day make some inroads and shake up the scene a little. I think we need that. Much as I think it is important, no, crucial, that we always have a strong opposition party to keep government honest. Elizabeth is , of course, completely approachable and available, which is nice.
Which leads me to the reason for my reflecting on FCM 2009.
After seeing Ignatieff and his entourage (I should mention in fairness that later in the week I enjoyed a great conversation with Sen. Campbell), I continued into the center of Whistler village. Standing there, in the dead center of the village square, was none other than NDP leader Jack Layton. Out there shaking hands with people, talking to tourists, and generally 'holding court' in the village square. No tie, no jacket, shirt sleeves rolled up.. chatting with the people.
I went over and Jack says "Hey Mike, how are things in Port Moody these days ?" Wow - he remembers me !! I'm star struck for just a minute and then I remember I'm wearing a name badge :)
We talk about the Tri Cities - Jack is actually very familiar with the riding, and has spent a fair amount of time here. We talk about Skytrain, about Dawn Black and James Moore. We talked about the GST. We talked about infrastructure deficit. Jack was such a powerful, passionate speaker that it truly was inspiring to just be around him , never mind talking to him...
And then I said to Jack "What the heck are you doing in a coalition with the Bloc and the Liberals ? I thought you were different Jack.. I thought you were better than that." Wow, where did that come from ?? I can be blunt sometimes, but I felt bad saying it even as the words left my mouth.
But Jack didn't get mad, or defensive , or anything else. He said he understood why I would say that, and if I would allow him, he would explain his reasons. He re-iterated much of what everyone had already heard in the media, and I tried to listen respectfully - but I assume it was obvious I didn't agree, as he stopped before he as finished and said "Mike, it's clear we just don't agree on this, and I hope that's OK. I know why you feel the way you do, I hope I've helped you understand why we did what we did - if not now, maybe one day you will - or maybe we will never agree.. but it doesn't mean we can't be friends, right ?? " .. and he put his arm around me and gave me one of those joking type hugs that you would share with a friend. We both laughed, I said "You'll know if I agree with you Jack when you see my party membership form come through your office". He thought that was funny... or at least he laughed.. there was now a small crowd gathered around , and they laughed too.
I don't generally support political parties - in fact, I hate that we even have them. I hate that anyone would do something because 'the party said so'. I have supported NDP , Green, (BC) Liberal , Conservative, and independent candidates at all levels of government - because I thought they were good people. (I have to admit, I have never supported the federal liberal party or their candidates in my riding) I have the luxury of living in a riding(s) where we have had GREAT candidates and MP's / MLA's. Even when the candidate I support hasn't won, we have always ended up with great representation , which makes me very happy. I like them all, and I respect them all for what they do... and while I'm not a member of the federal NDP party, nor likely will I ever be, Jack Layton was certainly a politician I would support. In the four of five conversations we had over the years, he helped me understand the party system and why he thought it was important. How he felt that generally it was good having to give or compromise within the party, even if you didn't fully agree - because this represented how society as a whole worked.
Jack was a great opposition MP and leader - in fact, maybe that was his destiny - to oppose. I know that sounds negative, but in Canadian politics, its VERY important. We often saw poll results where he personally polled higher than any other party leader - but the NDP was , until this past election, clearly never even close to forming government. But Jack pressed on, fighting the fight and rolling up those sleeves and getting out and talking to the Canadian people about what their priorities were and what was important. He beat his head against the walls our parliamentary system puts up in the 'charade' of democracy (we all know the debate might make for good theatre but at the end of the day even a majority of 1 in government means you will do what you want).
I think Jack actually brought change to our government, our country and our world. How may people can we say that about ? I think Jack showed people that politicians aren't all 'sleezy', that its not all about back room deals and we are all in this together, so let's make it the best we can. I think Jack understood the role of opposition better than anyone, and worked in the system to effect change and to bring good policy and governance to the people.
We will NEVER replace Jack. Never. But hopefully others will follow in his footsteps, and keep paving the road that he has laid down.
Your battle with cancer has ended Jack - I didn't think there was a fight you didn't think you could win, and I know you never gave up. I hope now you are free, this horrible disease is done, and your soul carries on - and your memories continue to inspire, and bring to action, all of those you have inspired. It was indeed a pleasure and an honour to have met you, and I thank you as one of those people you inspired.
I could say Rest in Peace, but, I don't believe you ever rest ;)
God-speed Jack, and all the sympathy and support Olivia.