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Jack Layton's Legacy Isn't What You Think

Posted: 09/01/11 10:00 AM ET

On the day of Jack Layton's death, I was asked to do a number of interviews regarding his passing. Though I was a former Liberal Member of Parliament, Jack and I often conversed about public policy and we got along well. So, of course, I agreed.

The interviews coalesced around the former NDP leader's legacy. Almost by default, the interviewers themselves were assuming that his greatest accomplishment was attained only recently on May 2, when his party won big and he became the leader of the Official Opposition. I reminded them that only political types think this way. What politics giveth, it can also take away, suddenly, and often with brutal results. For Jack Layton, his legacy will be something far more important and vital to the Canadian context.

Think of the groups or issues that have been largely ignored in the past number of years and you'll find Layton consistently championing their causes. The environment, Aboriginals, unions, those struggling in poverty, women, the unemployed, social justice -- Jack and his party fought faithfully for these issues and often suffered a lack of strong voter support as a result. For years they remained the third party because Canadian voters appeared far more interested in the economy than they were in those struggling at the margins. Yet year after year, often with mixed election results, Jack Layton soldiered on, reminding Canadians that any society that overlooked the importance of such issues wasn't functioning as it should.

In my view at least, this explains a portion of the remarkable appeal the NDP leader had with the public during his final days and those leading up to his funeral. Canadians are a good people, even if they at times forget those being left behind, and they recognized in Jack Layton a champion of both public service and humanity. We inherently respect those who struggle for the "little guy," and God knows there has been a shortage of supply of such action coming out of Ottawa in recent years.

It is no small irony that, while Canadians grow increasingly frustrated with political partisanship and its damaging consequences, that Jack Layton was one of the fiercest partisans on Parliament Hill. Years of being largely ignored by the other larger parties in Parliament had understandably turned many NDP members against their political foes with an animated fervor. But if you looked up in the visitor gallery on any particular day the House was sitting, you would see advocates of the forgotten causes cheering on the NDP. There is something to be learned from this for all political parties: go for power all you want, but Canadian citizens are smart enough to discern the difference between power and public service and Jack Layton had turned that into an art form.

Politics is supposed to matter because it's designed to protect and resource Canadians to be all they wish to be. Sadly, under the present political structure there are too many citizens that lie outside of that promise. Jack Layton, despite his partisanship, never forgot them and in the end Canadians didn't forget him because of it.

I spoke with Jack's mother Doris after his first cancer scare. Her greatest fear was that she would lose a son to the disease and she would be left alone. Well, it happened and our hearts and prayers are with her these days. But Canadians are now suffering something similar. A good man, a hearty public servant, is gone and we are left in our grief. That sadness would surely become easier to bear if future political leaders ushered in all citizens to the Canadian promise and not just those who can swing votes.

 

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