Tribute to Jack Layton I gave to Toronto Board of Health September 13, 2011

Thank you for organizing this time to show appreciation for Jack Layton, a central figure in the success
story of public health in Canada.

Jack gave us many gifts during the many vibrant days of his lifetime, and left us with a monumental gift during his fatal illness, when his generous and giving spirit was clear for all to see. His parting words about love and hope provided the entire country with a teachable moment that may long inspire thoughtful actions.

Although Jack was always very upfront about being a New Democrat, I think his legacy is non-partisan, and provides new approaches that are relevant for everyone, regardless of politics.

In his signature campaigns – I’m thinking of his work to protect women from violence, to support people with AIDs, to back co-op housing, to launch food policy councils, to limit smoking in public spaces, to champion bicycling – he always conceived of equitable partnerships of individuals, community and business groups, community agencies and several levels of government. The government wasn’t going to make changes for us, but neither could we make changes without government. It’s a two-way street, a relationship, not just a government service, he envisioned.

I believe Jack put his finger on and animated this template for empowerment-inspired legislation of the future.

And my guess is that his natural inclinations in this direction resonated with the famous Ottawa Charter on Health Promotion, issued in 1986 when he was still a new kid on the block of public health. To read that charter, with its emphasis on personal esteem and the need for capacity-building and community support, as well as government protection, is to read a rough outline of many campaigns he led.

Jack also brought a very broad sense of public to public health. He loved the life of the public realm. He reveled during the partying and costumes of Gay Pride parades. He loved what he hoped would be an annual mass cycling up the Don Valley Parkway. He loved to party, to meet people.

I believe that for Jack public space was sacred space. Not just public as in government space, but the space of public squares and living streets and the space between individual humans that love could link. In the mid-90s, Jack and I and his close friend and fellow public health champion Dan Leckie tried to form a religious congregation that would meet on the banks of the Don River below the Bloor Street viaduct, led by the United Church minister for the homeless, Allan Reeve. So I have reason to believe Jack understood sacred public space to include the environment and home of all species.

My Canada includes Quebec, he doubtless thought, as a person born in Quebec, son of a family with deep roots in Quebec and Canada. But even more, Jack believed my Canada includes and has love for everyone and every place.

Long may we thank him for this wonderful legacy.

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