Words fail me. That’s what I tweeted this morning, after I saw the Breaking News on Citytv’s Breakfast Television, as I was massaging my muscles post-weight session, that Jack Layton had died. That first announcement was brief, and Cynthia Mulligan had a hard time switching gears to traffic. Switching gears. That’s what’s happening today.
Being a long-time Torontonian, I have “known” Jack Layton since he was first elected to Toronto City Council. Back then the city was the centre of what was Metropolitan Toronto comprising Toronto, Scarborough, North York, Etobicoke, East York, and York, all of which were at odds with each other. Today, we are all one big city under the moniker “Toronto” and still don’t like each other. In the 1980s, Layton entered the spacecraft-shaped Chamber and roared his protest. That’s pretty much how I remember Layton: one big noisy antagonistic protest. It came to a head for me during the SkyDome building days when CityPlace (if I remember the name right), owned by CN at the time and in charge of developing the lands around the SkyDome, was almost brought to a halt by Layton because he said the buildings had to be one hundred percent social housing, else no building. No kidding. That’s why there was lots of green space, one narrow park dedicated to the Chinese rail workers, a driving range, a concrete crushing plant and no building for years. Needless to say, I was heartily glad when he finally lost an election shortly after that. Since the Art Eggleton days, Toronto has been about destroying our past and doing nothing in the present, and Layton seemed to be a big part of that. I did not like the man, and I was not alone. Many of us cheered at his loss.
After three years in the wilderness, Layton returned to municipal politics. I was not happy. And then I began to notice he had changed. No more was he one big bossy noisy protest; instead he was envisioning solutions to current problems and using larger and larger stages to make life better in Toronto. Life in the wilderness had made him think. His demeanour had changed from fist and protest to energy and grins. He infected people with the idea that Toronto wasn’t about petty left-right bickering but about creating an urban space in which rich, poor, and middle class lived, worked, and played. Although he had become a driving force in the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, I hadn’t realised he was dreaming even bigger until I read the news that he had become leader of the NDP party. I’m not sure why that surprised me. Toronto City Council bans party politics, but we had all known Layton was an NDPer, even before the days the NDP Party began blatantly showed their backing of certain municipal politicians. Still, I had always seen him as a city man not as a national politician. But then eighty percent of Canadians live in cities. Why should we not be represented by a politician who loves cities and knows how to make them work?
The election he started talking about becoming Prime Minister, even in the face of scoffing and rolling eyes, is when I knew Layton had transformed himself completely and methodically over the years. He had become a politician with an unattainable dream. And he was going for it.
In the last few years, Layton won me over completely. He had a happy optimism that wasn’t Pollyannaish or head-in-the-sand-refusing-to-see-reality. No, it was an optimism that faced reality and still rejoiced in the coming triumph while planning how to make it happen. It was so rooted in reality, it was infectious. He was savvy and understood that by lifting people up you could get more things done that helped people, made life better, made us productive and energetic, made Canadians want to do more for their country together. He was tough. You can’t make statements like “I’m campaigning to be Prime Minister” and then weather all the tomatoes and eggs and laughter lobbed at you and keep dancing forward without being tough. He was resilient. He took the failure, thought on what kind of politician he wanted to be (apparently even before his big public failure of losing an election), and came back with bigger dreams and an inspiring way. He had courage. I’m not sure when he decided the NDP would form the national government, but a person can’t envision such a thing and plan for it as if it is entirely possible without having courage. Even with the plethora of support he enjoyed from family and friends, it was and is a breath-taking dream. He had energy. Some people have loads of energy; some don’t. But I believe that pessimism is an energy-stealer; division is an energy-stealer; dwelling on failure and nurturing hatred for not getting your own way (politically) is an energy-stealer. Optimism gives energy; bringing people together creates more energy for each person; dwelling on failure long enough to figure out why and thus come up with a solution then sticking the failure in the past gives energy; shrugging off not getting your own way and figuring out how to do things better puts the focus firmly on the present and propels a person into the future. I think that’s why so many people liked watching him: his energy and joy flowed out of him and into us.
On July 26 when we heard the news of Layton’s cancer, I wrote:
“… when you are at the point of achieving your greatest goal … there is something intensely grieving about receiving that kind of news. One moment, you are happy, laughing, loving each day, anticipating with excitement the fulfillment of all your work; the next, you’re facing the death of your dream, and in Jack’s case, perhaps his very life.”
That is what makes this news intensely tragic. Layton had worked a long time, had spent a long time thinking and planning, to make his dream a reality. And it wasn’t his spirit that killed it; it wasn’t lack of opportunity or even ill health; it was an evil process that today’s medical science and knowledge was helpless against.
When I saw him on TV on July 26th, I first saw his body: emaciated, pale and flushed, failing. My heart sank. Then I saw his eyes, his spirit. So strong, so determined, full of hope and planning. If spirit alone could delay death, Layton would be alive. After all, it was that spirit that had already done the impossible: gotten him through the first six months of this year, including an election. His fractured hip puzzled me – the explanations given didn’t seem to jibe to me – and his shrinking frame not just from diet alone. Yet he showed more energy than Prime Minister Stephen Harper and then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff combined. And he triumphed. He achieved the penultimate step to his unattainable dream. That’s what optimism, courage, facing reality, yet dreaming big do for a person. And not relying on contacts or others to make things happen.
I am overwhelmed by the tragedy of his death, of witnessing the death of a man who thrived on life and was cut down as he was seeing the fruition of all his work. Only four more years, and perhaps he would have become Prime Minister. I am also overwhelmed by the tragedy for Canada. We have a Prime Minister who thrives on division, who is about as inspiring as a wet teabag. We have an unproven Official Opposition who doesn’t seem to have a member with Layton’s combination of dreaming and pragmatism and ability to negotiate. We have a Liberal party who still doesn’t seem to get why they were tossed out. And if Toronto is any indication, we have a country full of middling politicians and apathetic people who all believe the best we can achieve is mediocrity, the best thing to do in all cases is nothing or dreaming small, and the best dreams are not about people – rich, poor, middle class — and how to make their lives better.
After my last injury, I became afraid of having dreams. It wasn’t the first time injury and events out of my control had derailed my dream. Previously, I had been able to pick up and get going again, but my closed head injury put paid to my dream – I heard the final clanging shut of that door six years post. And then help arrived out of the blue. Still, I remain fearful of dreaming, for to me dreaming equals bad things happening. The power of Layton is that he never stopped. His legacy is for us to switch gears, from envy and division, from apathy and learned helplessness, from waiting for others to do – to being the dreamers and doers ourselves.
No man is indispensable. But what Layton gave us is. Layton did seem to understand how tough life is for the vulnerable in society, and so few politicians really do. They spout trendy phrases but act in a way that makes life more difficult. And so perhaps Layton’s best legacy is not to look for an NDP politician to replace him, but to take on his best characteristics and to dream the unattainable for our country, our fellow citizens, and ourselves, and, through our actions, force politicians to make our dreams happen. Illness and brain injury has a dampening effect on how much one can physically do yet our spirits can still act. Perhaps those of us with low physical energy cannot march in protest, but we can goad others into marching. Perhaps we cannot write letters every day, but we can blog or tweet our thoughts directly to MPs every time we can, even if all we can is once every six months. Perhaps we cannot express ourselves well, but expressing ourselves even in a few, short words is better than not at all. And most of all, we can mimic Layton’s resiliency. His seminal failure was not of health but it was a mammoth one nevertheless, and he came back like the proverbial cat.
I may be afraid of personal dreams, but I can dream for my city and my country. We can together adopt Layton’s brand of optimism, face reality then let our minds wander freely into amazing visions of better things, and ask ourselves why not?