Jack Layton’s Afterlife Will Keep Us All Busy

The way things look now, it will be as much work keeping up with Jack’s afterlife as it was keeping up with the pace he set in his all-too-brief life down here.

His death on August 21 kindled an extraordinary national wide outpouring of sorrow, love and spiritual reflection that will go down in history as an inspired moment in the evolving Canadian identity – likely to match the transformative impact that Expo 67 and Confederation centennial had on the Canadian imagination of the 1960s.

Everyone has grown up a lot since 1967, and a lot of new faces have since made Canada home. Jack’s legacy will be to symbolize these changes and anticipate others to come.

The difficulty with interpreting a charismatic presence is that charisma is about the willingness of others to project their own thinking, struggles, hopes and dreams onto the charismatic personality.

Some read Jack as the penultimate social democratic, for example. As I see it, it’s undeniable that the NDP was a major part of Jack’s politics and life. However, Jack became bigger than life precisely because he challenged social democracy as much as he challenged any other ideology of the old order.
I believe the essence of Jack’s continuing challenge far transcends and enriches and redefines politics as it has been practiced for at least a generation. It will take us a lifetime to catch up with what Jack got a glimpse of thanks to his flat-out, exuberant and engaged life.
The enormity of the Layton challenge — which the events of the past week have helped me see and feel for the first time — combines three distinctive elements.

First, Jack – and this may be why he is known to all by his first name alone — believed in the need for deep-seated and soulful personal engagement. He called on people to improve themselves, as a precondition for effective change in public policy. His starting point was “the political is personal.”
In stark contrast to conventional welfare state liberalism and social democracy – both joined at the hip at the founding of the New Democratic Party in 1961 – Layton’s signature campaigns began with personal commitment. The pre-Layton expectation of traditional social democracy was that governmental change would do the trick without much need for personal responsibility or exertion. Therefore, laws and institutions, not individuals or civil society groups, were the focus of NDP efforts for change.

Instead, Jack called on men to take responsibility for the campaign to end violence against women. Protective laws were essential, but could never be sufficient without personal commitment by the people perpetrating the violence.

Likewise, Jack called on people to compost and recycle, to conserve energy and water, to garden, and to stop smoking. He understood that these campaigns couldn’t get to first base unless people made a commitment which government then supported and enabled.

This enabling conception of government, I believe, was unique. It is one of the defining concepts behind the 1986 Ottawa Charter on Health Promotion, which inspired many of Jack’s initiatives as chair of Toronto’s Board of Health during much of the 1980s and ‘90s.

One expression of this approach was the support Jack, together with his old friend Dan Leckie, gave to the formation of the Toronto Food Policy Council in 1991. The Council, which employed me in the period from 2000 to 2010, was one of about three in the world from 1991 until about 2005, but is now one of among some 160 such councils in cities as varied as Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Vancouver, Seattle and Bristol. The basic idea of a council is that citizens take responsibility to develop the knowledge and policy to guide City policy in food-related issues.

I remember going with Layton in 1993 to a meeting of Ontario Hydro executives, while we were still totally enthused about having founded the Coalition for a Green Economy. Before sitting down to meet, Jack opened the blinds and turned off the lights, pointing out there was no need for artificial lighting when the windows let in plenty of daylight. Hydro brass couldn’t believe their eyes. It was Jack’s way of saying: you’ve got to respect and engage with life forces before we do the technocratic policy wonk think about conserving it.

This understanding of public policy was expressed in food policies in a way that foreshadows how typical legislation will be drafted in the near future, when the interplay between personal and public spheres will become the norm. Jack and Debbie Field of FoodShare developed a cost-shared, partnership-based funding model for school meals that included contributions from family, citizen groups, city, board of education, province and federal government. Is this privatization or publicization, or should we call it laytonization of public and personal responsibilities?

Secondly, Jack treated public space as sacred. His joyful moments were often in public – be it his wedding, his cavorting during Pride and Caribana parades, his distribution of multiple copies of Rise Up Singing at parties so people could join in and come together as a group, his hilarity as an auctioneer for hundreds of fundraising organizations. It should come as no surprise that he told his spiritual advisor Brent Hawkes that he treated each day as an act of worship.

Indeed, Jack, Dan Leckie and I tried to organize an “un-church” in the mid-1990s, with Allan Reeve, minister to the homeless for the United Church. We gathered at the river, on the banks of the Don River, to think and talk about things that were deeply meaningful and soulful to us, without any reference to a particular deity or theology but with a deep awareness of the mysteries of Nature and human bonds. Oddly enough, we couldn’t carry this church off because we lacked the organizational capacity to serve the spiritual needs of people, and our effort eventually fizzled.

I think Jack’s ideals call us to reconsider conventional secularism. To embrace inter-culturalism doesn’t require draining public or personal life of individual cultural backgrounds. To embrace religious tolerance does not require draining public life of personal beliefs or spiritual opportunities. To embrace personal rights – of sexual preference, for example – does not require, but enables, participation in the public sphere – too long seen as a government-monopolized sphere, rather than many places where the life and death can be marked as precious because shared in common.

I think such an approach is growing within today’s food movement. Food Secure Canada, for example, which I serve as a member of its steering committee, holds that the sacredness of food is a cardinal principle of food sovereignty. This statement borrows from the principles of Via Campesina, the global peasants’ and small farmers’ organization that is leading the international struggle for food sovereignty.

Once, during a 1999 meeting of Toronto’s Environmental Task Force that Jack chaired and I worked on, we had a discussion of the crucial role played by marshes – swamps, they used to be called, before their truel importance and beauty were appreciated. I publically asked Jack if he were ready to declare himself an unabashed Marshist. Yes, I am a Marshist, he said to great applause. His love for the public sphere went far beyond government to include all public space.

Seeing the public sphere as sacred gave him the courage to speak openly and publically about love—not only Jack’s deep personal love and devotion for Olivia and family, but his deep love for people he barely knew.

Jack saw and named a role for love in public life. Without suggesting that Jack is the J in the evangelical WWJD (What Would Jesus Do), Jack’s key message was also the message of two of history’s great rebel leaders. Jesus called on people to love their enemies as themselves. Gandhi allowed no one to join his circle of militant and courageous supporters of liberation from British rule unless they loved the British. The goal, Gandhi insisted, was not liberation from British rule, but self-rule and self-liberation, which required love of the other.

Whether Jack was mindful of this heritage or not, I do not pretend to know.

But there is no doubt he worked hard to honor this code, and came to a point where he could share with the country his lesson of a lifetime: “love is better than anger, Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
This call goes beyond social democracy. It is liberation democracy, a spirit now abroad in the land. Always pick a goal so big that it can’t be reached in one lifetime, he used to advise. Liberation democracy, I believe, was his goal that he gave to others to fulfill.


  1. marty smith says:

    where do the comments go?

Speak Your Mind