By the time I took high school civics in 2004, Jack Layton was already leader of the NDP. I feel bad for saying this today (of all days), but I thought Layton was kind of annoying and much preferred Paul Martin of the Liberals and Stephen Harper of the Conservatives. Martin won the Canadian federal election that year; Harper placed second and Layton finished a distant fourth (apparently I was not alone).
Fast forward seven years to the spring of 2011 and Jack Layton singlehandedly carried his beloved NDP to a second place finish. The NDP had never finished better than third in the history of this country. It was a stunning result. Layton and the NDP leapfrogged the Liberals (then led by Michael Ignatieff) and made a real charge at Harper’s Conservatives. People started to believe. They had never believed in the NDP before. Not en masse.
Layton lost his battle with cancer this morning. At 61, he’s inarguably gone too soon. He had more work to do. He revitalized a party and became the face of left-wing politics in this country. Now the already-fractured left doesn’t have a single leader in sight, let alone a personable one like Layton. It’s probably not appropriate to start talking about political repercussions on the day he died, but there it is. This country and its politics were far better off with the moustache.
The most amazing part of the NDP’s rise was that it was solely because of Layton. Many Canadians (too many) aren’t quite familiar with our voting system here; most people think they’re voting for the prime minister on election day. In fact, unless someone lived in the riding of Toronto-Danforth, they weren’t actually casting a vote for Layton. Since a lot of people don’t know or understand this, they go to the voting booth on election day thinking that they’re voting directly for who becomes prime minister.
Five million people voted for the NDP on May 2, including me. Most of them were actually voting for Jack Layton. This was most noticeable in Quebec, where the NDP made its biggest gains, when people like Ruth Ellen Brosseau – who had never set foot in the riding she was elected and spent part of the campaign in Las Vegas - got elected for no other reason than people believed in Layton.
Over the years Layton became the last charismatic Canadian politician on the landscape. This year we were burdened with the borderline-robotic Harper and personality-vacuum Ignatieff. Layton, with his cane and his moustache, was the only likable guy in the bunch. It says wonders that so many Canadians, a country that hasn’t ever really been friendly to the NDP, converted at the drop of the hat for Layton.
Goodbye, Jack. Thanks for making us believe.