Jack Layton’s Winning Spirit

You don’t really get to know some people until you know them when they’re down.

That’s a problem for anyone who wants to write about Jack Layton, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, who’s taking a medical leave while he delas with some health setbacks.

Even during his media conference announcing hard news on his ordeal with cancer, Jack Layton personifies upbeat. Respect and compassion and love for his life-force – damn whatever disease is in his body – has erupted across the country.

In my 30 years of working with and being a friend of Jack Layton – I did the campaign literature for his first run in politics, in 1982, when he scored an upset victory and won a seat on Toronto City Council –I’ve never known him to be down.

But I did work closely with him over two years when anyone else would have been.

That was 20 years ago. I watched Jack bounce back without losing a beat — with the same vim, vigor and undaunted lust for life he showed making his announcement this week.

In 1991, Jack was soundly defeated in his bid to be Toronto mayor, and found himself without an occupation or a recognized podium, all by himself. If he wasn’t depressed about his personal situation, he could have been depressed by the economy. It’s commonly forgotten that the economic downturn of the early 1990s was THE game-changer of recent times. That recession, which has never really ended, brought an end to the “good” industrial jobs that gave ordinary unionized working people a “middle class” lifestyle, provided them enough disposable income to buoy a prosperous and secure middle class and well-funded robust governments.

Future archeologists will note that all the new housing developments that have mushroomed across Toronto over the last 20 years have been built over the remains of industrial plants irretrievably closed in those years. The economic foundation of Canada’s previous prosperity and social structure – the beehive of a large group in the middle tapering to narrow groups at either end – was dismantled with deindustrialization.

Likewise down for the count was the economic foundations of well-financed governments, backed by voters with good spirits and good will. Few people felt it was a problem when governments shared some of the good things of life. Today, that “sin” is called “a false sense of entitlement.”

By finding his place on the positive side of these negative pressures, Jack became the open, creative and positive person who people feel for today.

At the time, I worked as a campaigner for Greenpeace, trying to figure out how renewable energy could create more and better jobs than nuclear and coal plants – and that intention was about all I knew.

While moonlighting for NOW, I had written about Jack’s mayoralty campaign and the extraordinary attention it paid to dynamic new economic development strategies – what would now be seen as creative/knowledge/green economics.

The two of us got together – if you can call meeting him at 8:00 in the morning before his first meeting of the day, and then again at 10:00 at night after his last public meeting, while he and Olivia hosted an open house for whoever else dropped by — to flesh out a new green economics that emphasized the job creation and public savings that come from smart green infrastructure.

We teamed up with Gary Gallon, the ever-ready bunny responsible for many of the of the green initiatives of the recently defeated provincial Liberals, and got Greenpeace founder and guerilla TV news reporter Bob Hunter to be our communications team (alongside me at NOW) as we burst onto the scenewith the Coalition for a Green Economic Recovery — promising 100,000 new green jobs financed by savings from conservation achieved by the new green-collared workers. Win-win-win policies, we said,
with wins for the economy, society and the environment.

On the basis of this approach, Jack, soon back at City Hall as a leading councillor, led the newly amalgamated city’s Environmental Task Force of 1999, which set the standard for green economic policies achievable at the local level.

The thing that most stuck in Jack’s craw through this transition was a guy who asked if his name was ButJack. Whaddya mean, Jack said. Well, the newspapers are always saying that so-and-so favors this, “but Jack Layton opposes.” Why is it that Jack always opposes, the man wanted to know.

This was Jack’s bicycle path to Damascus. He vowed thereafter to dedicate himself to “proposition, not opposition.” And he has lived up to that demanding standard.

When I think of Jack facing his future now, my mind casts back to those open-house meetings late at night in the ‘90s, and how startled I was that after a more than full day of meeting people, Jack and Olivia took delight in meeting more people at night. That was their idea of downtime.

Jack not only lives full-on. He draws his energy and strength from others, which is why he leaves himself open – more vulnerable, surely, but with more energy transfer.

This is a person who ends a media conference announcing a personal health setback with these words: “We will work with Canadians to build the country of our hopes, of our dreams, of our optimism, of our values, of our love.”

I am so glad for Jack that he can take the good wishes of so many with him as he gathers his strength now. It is a fine tribute to him and to the people of this country.

(adapted from NOW Magazine, July, 2011)


  1. Daizy Näf says:

    I would have never expected to get emotional over the life of a politician but this morning, tuned into CBC, I cried after hearing about the death of Jack Layton. My husband put his arms around me and together we remembered the incredible leap Jack had made for the NDP party and the country. We both agree that he could have done even greater things, had he been given the chance. Your country will miss you Jack. Thanks for fighting for us.

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