August 27th, 2011

charioteer

Jack Layton (1950 – 2011)

Jack Layton died on Monday. It was a shock, but hardly a surprise. When he told the country that he was taking a leave of absence from Parliament, he looked so transparent and fragile that one would have had to be deep in denial not to recognize that he was a man who had his death on him.

As I write, his funeral is under way at Roy Thomson Hall.

I've never understood the impulse to "pay one's respects" by lining up for hours in order to file past a coffin. My way to deal with Layton's death was to go to Wikipedia, read through the entry for him, and—way down in the body of the article—change the tense in a few places to reflect the fact that he'd died. However, there's no question that the decision to give him a state funeral was the right one (for all that I'm highly cynical about Harper's motives). Both in Ottawa and in Toronto, an enormous number of people have turned out. The viewing here, at City Hall, ran all day yesterday into the evening, and again this morning. Indeed, CTV is even providing live coverage of the funeral. I don't know when the last time was that they did that, even for a state funeral. Trudeau's maybe?

Actually, given the enormous outpouring of grief, Trudeau isn't a bad comparison. The passion for Layton in the past year has rivalled Trudeaumania; and, unlike Pierre Elliott, who served his terms in office and retired long before he actually died, Layton had the tragedy to die at the height of popularity and the pinnacle of success. He took the NDP from a distinctly third party to Official Opposition; and their unexpected gain in the last federal election was very much his doing. He was the face of the campaign; and many people who were fed up with the Liberals and would never vote Conservative decided in the end to "vote for Jack", for all that—our political system being what it is—they were actually, of course, marking their ballot for the local NDP candidate, whoever that might be.

He took the party to unprecedented heights; and, within months, he was dead.

What the country will do without him, I don't know. I suspect that Harper is, on the one hand, delighted that all three opposition parties are in disarray, with leadership races in the offing; and, on the other hand, cursing that this has happened less than a year into his mandate, so that they will all have plenty of time to sell people on their new leaders before he has to call a new election. Certainly, by that time someone will be leading the NDP.

But it won't be Jack.