Less than a week before the Federal election of 2000, a tiny quorum of hapless NDPers selected me as their candidate for Toronto Centre Rosedale. As I was very soon to learn this was not entirely a vote of confidence if only because the riding was unwinnable, unless of course the incumbent, then Minister of Foreign Affairs Bill Graham decided to endorse me in his place.
Head office thought of T.C.R. as a lost leader, a shoe-out; the riding needed a candidate only because the party wished to maintain an across-the-country presence. And to be perfectly frank, all of that was just fine with me. In fact I'd agreed to pick up the writ not because I have a deep need to serve -- I rather hate to serve -- but really only because I had a great desire to lose weight while running.
My late friend and former Minister of Culture John Roberts told me that the election would for sure skim 15 pounds off my writerly ass. And even my wife who wished me to serve no one but her was tickled by the prospects.
The fact that there was no pressure meant that I had lots of time to think about things that other candidates were forced to ignore. What was this party, which attracted a lot of control freaks and know-it-all types, really about? Why did everything about the NDP at the time smell of must and moth balls and the kind of formaldehyde used to keep the dead pretty for the length of a wake?
I began getting some answers at the party's leader's circle. That was when I learned not only about the NDPs Methodist past but the extent to which this religious thing trickled into the present. To get that much, all I really had to do was pay attention to the way the then Leader, Alexa McDonough who is a near and dear friend, addressed the crowds that gathered in the Union Hall on Cecil Street. Invariably Alexa would pump people up by conjuring forth some terrible, good for nothing, very bad legislation that the Liberal Party had recently passed. She would then pause for quite a while, look at the crowd as a country preacher looked out at his flock. "Shame, Shame" they would then bleat. "Shame, Shame." And then Alexa pointed out another terrible, good for nothing, very bad bit of legislation and again the sheep would bleat: "Shame, Shame and double Shame." Jack Layton put an end to all of that.
He also put an end to the party's longtime bobbing for bronze. When NDP leader Ed Broadbent retired from politics, the NDP became tired and disheveled and developed the look of a strip mall in Barrie. I remember the day I learned what a lousy sales strategy this was. It was unusually hot for November and both Sancho and Panza, my two young handlers, and I had, for some unknown reason, decided to canvass really hard in the concrete jungle once called Rosedale South but currently referred to as St. James Town. By the time we got to the 15th floor of the first building we had all come dangerously close to dehydration and felt weirdly antiseptic due to the cleansing and intoxicating Lysol fumes that rose freely in these halls with no exit. We could hear the noise from inside the apartments but when we knocked, it triggered the mute button. I could have sworn that I heard the apartment being condemned or maybe only the shuffle of all its tenants escaping by the rot iron staircase in the back.
And then, to our great relief, a genial Sri Lankan fellow surprised us. He did not quite open the door but only as far as the chain permitted. "Can I help you?" he said sheepishly. Before answering I stepped into the gap so that he would not be tempted to slam the damned thing in our face. "If you could, we would very much appreciate a glass of luke warm tap water." Then I stepped back and took my chances.
The fellow hesitated, was perhaps tempted to slam the door but did not. Instead he pulled it back, unchained the chain, removed the latch and gestured us into the apartment which was awash with sprung mattresses. "Please sit" he said pointing to three springs near the toilet. Dutifully we sat and our host proceeded to serve us not only warmish water but herbal tea which did less to restore my faith in humanity than it reminded me that I was here on a mission.
"Why do people in this building hate the NDP?" I asked the fellow. "I really don't get it. We are for you all the way. The party is promising heaps of bright new affordable housing units. We will increase child support, provide more jobs, more schools. We're for extending maternity leave and we're for more woman in office and for gay marriage and abortions for everyone... "
I intended my questions rather lightly, but our host darkened, became wistful and maybe even morbid.
"Mister" he finally said "I will tell you something. I am a loser... I don't ever work and I don't do nothing. My wife gives me no respect... My son, sometimes he beats me. My daughter... I don't know what she does with her crackhead friends... And you sir? You too are a loser... The NDP are all losers. And I don't want to be friends with losers... I want to be part of a winning team... Do you understand that? I want to be a winner".
Jack made us all feel like winners. On his watch, the NDP left the old George Costanza posture far behind. Sometimes Jack actually seemed too have gone too far in the other direction. His clipped walrus moustache, his million dollar smile, double-starched high collar shirts that would have made Otto von Bismarck proud, made the team that Jack led seem as though they all bought retail and could easily own the podium.
But Stephen Lewis who eulogized Jack did not mention either of these legacies... Probably he thought they were too inside, too NDP, inappropriate because insufficiently inclusive. Stephen Lewis who is undoubtedly one of Canada's greatest orators struck out for what he thought of as Jack's universal appeal. He chose to focus on Jack's commitment to social democracy, to caring and sharing, to the optimism that Jack's letter from Limbo articulated so well...
But somehow, Lewis who always makes me feel warm and fuzzy, left me cold this time. In fact I left Roy Thompson Hall where the celebration of Jack's life took place, feeling as though I lived in a parallel universe -- as though the single biggest thing that Jack did which was to decimate the Bloc in Quebec -- was thought of as either so out in left field or so undignified or so inconsequential as to warrant not even a mention.
But think about this achievement. Isn't shrinking the Separatist Partie Quebecois from a 53 seat high under Lucien Bouchard, to the size of a cherry pit in 2011 not more than just politics as usual? Was this not really politics in the grandest style? Did Jack not just now end more than three centuries of sturm und drang and a mostly civil but sometimes uncivil war between Anglos and Francophones? Did he not end that tension which for so long defined Canada more than anything else?
To be sure, no one can really say that it is over. But it could be over. Provided we really get what Jack did; provided we celebrate the end of the conflict respectfully, carefully... make sure Quebecers understand that we think of this victory not as a victory over Quebec but over Separatism. Jack opened a window that could rid us of our Separatist demons. And we should be celebrating the fact that Quebecers seem very prepared to forget about Duplessis and Levesque and Bouchard and Duceppe. This is what Jack did... He killed the separatist urge and we now need to hammer into its coffin as many nails as we can. That would free Jack's spirit and would not sugarcoat his legacy unto death.