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Jack Layton: Looking back, gazing ahead

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Jack Layton, June 4, 2011

On August 22, 2011, Jack Layton passed away.

Many people knew Jack over his lifetime of activism, first as a city councillor in Toronto, then as the head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and finally as the leader of the New Democratic Party. On this, the anniversary of his death, many who knew him -- privately and publicly -- will be thinking about him. Not only of his impact on the Canadian political landscape, but also of his impact on their lives. I'm one of them.

Over the years I had the opportunity of having several wide-ranging conversations with Jack.  On several visits to Nova Scotia, at a national policy convention, during swings through Nova Scotia on election campaigns, I had the chance to exchange ideas, share views, and generally chew the political fat with Jack. It was great fun. Like so many others, I found him ready -- and willing -- to discuss social, political, economic, environmental, civic, and cultural ideas at the drop of the proverbial hat. It was evident to anyone -- me included -- how engaged his thinking was on a sweeping range of topics.

Jack LaytonWhen I collared Jack one particularly memorable occasion at a Nova Scotia NDP party leader's levee, and dragged him off into a corner to talk to him about arts policy and political reform, it was evident to me that he didn't regard this as a necessary obligation of being a politician, but that he absolutely relished the opportunity to talk ideas. He wasn't engaged in anything momentous -- such as negotiating the terms of a coalition alliance -- but simply exchanging views one-on-one with a fellow political thinker. But he rolled up his metaphorical sleeves and jumped into the conversation with as much enthusiasm as if it actually mattered.

Which it did. To me.

Because I came away from that conversation a changed person. It became clear to me that here was a political leader who wasn't simply going through the motions of politics, but someone who was a living incarnation of politics.

One of the definitions of politic in my stunningly comprehensive and insightful Modern World Dictionary of the English Language -- exactly 5,500 pages in four volumes published in 1894 and occupying a place of honour beside my desk -- is this:

Politic: Prudent and sagacious in the adoption of a policy; sagacious in devising and carrying out measures tending to promote the public welfare.

On this basis, Jack was the very embodiment of all that is politic.

Jack LaytonToday, on the fourth anniversary of his death, I thought I would share a few images of him that I think capture facets of his character: fierce, focused, compassionate, funny. These were taken on his last visit to Nova Scotia, little more than a couple of months before his untimely death.

I recall our conversations with great vividness, including a lengthy one we had on electoral reform. I was of the view that this needed to be a top political priority. Even though, as a country, we faced many pressing social, political, economic, and environmental issues, if we were not able to reform our electoral system, if we were unable to make substantive changes to our political structures, we would continue to chase our tails.

The underlying structural electoral and political problems, the archaic and increasingly dysfunctional first-past-the-post electoral system, were badly tilting the political playing field, producing fundamentally un-representative and un-democratic results. If we couldn't develop a better underlying political mechanism, tackling all the other issues we needed to resolve would continue to remain a hit and miss affair. The structural electoral and political problems were creating a poisoned environment conducive to zero-sum, hyper-partisan thinking and conduct. Where we needed a nimble political system able to respond to the critical issues that faced our society, and one in which people would have confidence, we instead had the very opposite.

Jack LaytonJack patiently heard me out and then told me how much electoral and political reform meant to him. At the end, I remember how he paused, reflected, and then said, "I personally would be willing to sacrifice a great deal in order to achieve this." This notion of personal sacrifice in order to achieve a significant, common political objective is something that has stayed with me. Not every politician would be willing to set aside personal ambition in pursuit of higher ideals.

Now, on the cusp of another election, we are closer than ever to achieving this core value of Jack's political vision. It is my hope the next time this anniversary rolls round we will be able to celebrate. Celebrate both the NDP -- as a majority, minority, or coalition -- participating in the governing of Canada -- and the implementation of a more democratic way of electing our Parliament. It would be a fitting tribute to the many contributions of Jack Layton, and the sacrifices he was willing to make -- and did make. For this generation and generations to be.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.


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