I grew up, I think as many people do, believing that Canadian politics was boring. When I was fifteen years old I never even considered the possibility that the old men in suits on Parliament Hill had anything remotely to do with me. Jean Chretien talked funny, Brian Mulroney had a giant head, Preston Manning was kind of a pipsqueak and that was the extent of my opinion on the subject. Some kids in my class debated political policies because they were going to grow up to be lawyers; I watched Bernadette Peters In Concert a hundred times because I was going to grow up to be her.
I don’t want you to get the impression that I didn’t care about the world, I absolutely did. I cared a great deal about the poverty in Africa, I went to environmental rallies and supported the banning of pesticides, I cared a great deal for people living with HIV, taking care of the homeless, believed in a woman’s right to choose, that war was always the wrong answer and was adamant that we should have equal rights for everyone regardless of color, gender, sexual orientation, religion or ethnicity. I just hadn’t made the connection that these issues were, in a large part, the responsibility of those old men in suits on Parliament Hill. I didn’t realize this because I had never really heard any of them speak about such things, at least not at any great length or with any passion or commitment. I thought all politicians knew about was whether the Canadian dollar went up or went down, and were in charge of whether or not we went to war with Saddam Hussein and that they constantly did stupid things in their personal lives so they could be made fun of on Royal Canadian Air Farce.
Regardless of the way our Nation’s leaders appeared to me, I grew up, as I think most Canadians do, with a very distinct vision of our country and its place in the world. The national identity that I wrapped myself so warm and cozy in each day as my own self awareness deepened with each passing year grew entirely separately from whatever it was that the old men in suits were doing or saying on Parliament Hill. I learned about Canada, my home, and the values of the Canadian people by the example of my family and their friends, the people at my school and in my neighbourhood. I grew up in a place where people seemed kind, friendly and polite, where I felt safe and secure and I grew to learn that this mirrored Canada’s international reputation and its clichés about being a helpful nation, a peaceful nation and a humble leader on the world stage. I didn’t need Preston Manning or Brian Mulroney or Lucien Bouchard or anyone else to tell me that. When you live in Canada, I thought, where everything is always so uneventful, who cares what the politicians do or say… everything just goes on regardless…
2001. 16 years old. Beginning of Grade 12. 9/11. I started to pay more attention. If I didn’t understand the power that politicians had to destroy the fabric of a country before, watching the administration of George W. Bush unfold with horror, empathy and concern sure set me straight. Yet, still, that, I believed naively, could never happen to Canada where things are always so boring.
Somewhere out of this messy context came a new man with a moustache onto my television set named Jack and that is when I realized, for the first time in my life, that politics weren’t something arbitrary that was happening to me against my will, it was something that was being offered up for me to connect with. This government that I had always seen as being distant rich old men who didn’t care about or understand about or talk about or think about me or people I considered like me was, Jack suddenly revealed, *supposed* to be the voice of the people. These men were supposed to be working for me!
In a world where genocide, extreme poverty, rampant disease and war affect millions of people every day, it is easy for us in a country like Canada to get lulled into passivism and apathy. It is absurd that in an age where people in Egypt and Libya are taking to the streets in courageous fights against years of oppression and abuse, Canadians are smashing up Vancouver over a lost hockey game. Surely if that is our biggest problem we should all shut our mouths and quit whining, right? Jack Layton knew that we Canadians were capable of much more than this. He knew that we were capable of taking better care of our citizens, our neighbourhoods, our friends and colleagues and family members and he knew that we were capable of taking better care of the world.
He demanded it from the other politicians on the Hill and suddenly, for the first time, I was hearing one of those men in suits from Parliament Hill speak about the things that I was passionate about, the things that connected ardently to my sense of community and social justice. Soon, I realized, there was a whole Political Party filled with them, the people who wanted to make a difference, the people who wanted to change the world, the people who wanted to represent the Canadian people and our values and to make Canada a vivid beacon of a country that shone with fairness, prosperity and hope for the future.
Jack Layton made me proud to be Canadian. He made me proud to be a young, passionate, engaged and idealistic citizen of this country. Although I never met him in person, I knew he could see me and that he did care and he was listening and he did understand and he knew what was most important in the Canada that I wanted to grow and thrive in. Jack didn’t go into politics because he wanted to be glorified, because he wanted to be rich or because he was hungry for the power of the leadership, it was always so glaringly apparent that Jack cared so much for the people of his country and for the future of our world, that he wanted to work tirelessly to serve Canadians… to make Canada better for having lived here.
Those who bullied Jack in life, and especially those who do so now that he is gone, are obviously afraid of his infectious power and his ability to motivate and inspire people. In a way, I am pleased that these bullies have already begun to rear their angry, fearful, despairing faces because it suggests that they have not written off the NDP and its momentous power despite the tragic loss of its leader. It is still seen as being a threat to the Neo Conservative agenda and so it should. These bullies know that what Jack did best was his ability to reach the masses, to light the spark in them that made them want to fight for a better future for their country, to take on the responsibility, proudly and loudly and courageously, of being an informed, concerned, active citizen and participant in the decisions that the rich old men in suits were making on Parliament Hill. Jack reached out to young people, the ones that the other parties hoped would stay in clouds of apathy, disinterest and superficiality, not in some condescending or stereotypical “the children are our future” way, but because he believed in our ability and our potential and he valued our voices and our opinions and he knew that together we could really change the world.
Optimism is infectious, feeling empowered is the greatest ammunition for the human heart and although Jack is no longer with us physically, we are all still here. He believed in each of us, that we have what it takes to continue to work toward building the Canada that he advocated for so vividly throughout his life. He gave us the tools that we needed to go on without him, and we can, and we will.
Dearest Jack, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for standing up so eloquently and passionately for the Canada that I care about and for showing me that politics can be used to instigate positive change for our communities and to make the World a safer and fairer and more compassionate place to live. We must empower one another now, we must believe in one another and we must take better care of each other because, as Jack has shown us time and time again throughout his incredible political career, with optimism and unbridled hope, anything is possible.