This week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper surprised Canadians by offering a state funeral for former NDP leader Jack Layton. On the surface, it looks like a magnanimous gesture, since the honour is not normally conferred on Opposition leaders, but even Harper’s supporters know magnanimity is not his strong suit. He and his party did everything in their power to slander Layton’s name when he was alive. Now that they’re honouring him in death, forgive us if we doubt their motives.
Let’s bear in mind that the decision to offer this state funeral was made in the same backrooms where they came up with the label “Taliban Jack” in 2006, after Layton stated the obvious fact that the war in Afghanistan can never end until the invading forces agree to negotiate with the insurgents. In a vicious campaign to paint the NDP as terrorist collaborators, Harper put Peter (dogs-are-loyal) MacKay out front to spew such choice bits of dialogue as, “Is it next going to be tea with Osama Bin Laden?”
Tory cheerleaders in the national press jumped on that bandwagon so fast it nearly tipped over. “Would he pour tea for those who have killed 23 Canadian soldiers this year?” brayed the Globe and Mail, which remained strangely silent four years later when then-foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon announced it was now government policy to negotiate with the Taliban leadership.
After all the abuse that Layton took on that file – well-planned, cleverly orchestrated Conservative abuse, let there be no doubt – he could have been excused if he’d turned their vitriol back on them, but to his credit, the words “Taliban Larry” or “Taliban Pete” never escaped his lips. When Ontario talk show host John Moore asked if he would be demanding an apology, Jack said no, “As long as the right thing gets done I don’t really care.”
Layton believed passionately in social democracy, but he was never a blind partisan. He cared about making the country work for everybody. He cut his political teeth campaigning for the least respected members of society – the homeless. In Parliament he showed a willingness to compromise if it meant results. In 2005, when Paul Martin tried to bring in another of his starve-the-poor-to-fatten-the-rich budgets, Layton pushed for a compromise that rolled back wasteful tax cuts and put the money into much-needed social programs.
After the last election, when the national press were tripping over themselves to paint the new NDP caucus as a gang of wet-behind-the-ears sacrificial lambs who happened to fall into office by accident, Jack Layton took the high road. He might have pointed to, for instance, the Yukon’s new Conservative MP, a cage brawler by trade with less political experience than hair.
He could have mentioned a host of Alberta Conservatives who don’t bother to campaign because their faithful flocks don’t need to be told again every election who to vote for. Instead Jack simply said, “Young people got involved in this election in an unprecedented way … We should see that as something to celebrate, not something to criticize.”
Canada will mourn Jack Layton not only because he knew how to accentuate the positive, but because he was an honest politician, and a caring human being who shared the values most of us hold dear, and because his courage was an inspiration to us all. He faced cancer with the same dignity that he demonstrated under a constant barrage of spurious attacks from the Conservative machine.
Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto has become a fleeting memorial to Jack Layton this week. The concrete walls are crammed with chalked messages of regret and hope. The people are saying goodbye, but they are also echoing Jack’s promise, from his deathbed letter to Canadians, that we can change the world. “Don’t waste time mourning,” someone chalked, quoting the Wobbly crusader Joe Hill in his own last letter. “Organize.”
Go ahead and mourn. In whatever spirit the state funeral was offered, to mark the passing of a brave heart is no waste of time. There’ll be plenty of days to change the world: starting Monday morning.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.