OTTAWA - This is the story of Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair and the tie that binds them together.
It might be titled The Brotherhood of the Travelling Necktie.
Whether a slightly frayed, orange tie will turn out to have magical powers — like those of a threadbare pair of blue jeans that bring luck and self-confidence to four young women in the popular book series, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants — remains to be seen.
But it's already become a powerful symbol of unity for the federal NDP in the wake of a bruising seven-month leadership contest triggered by Layton's untimely death last August.
The saga begins 15 years ago during the 1997 election, when Jamey Heath was running for the New Democrats in Ottawa Centre. A friend bought him a tie — NDP orange, naturally — to wear on the hustings.
In 2003, Heath was in charge of communications for a little-known Toronto city councillor, Jack Layton, in his bid to become national NDP leader. On the day of the leadership vote, Heath was appalled by Layton's unfashionable choice of neckwear.
"His tie was so bad, I refused to let him wear it," Heath recalls.
It was, according to Layton's son, Mike, "one of the ties my grandmother had made him, years and years before."
Heath zipped home, grabbed his classier, trendier orange tie and brought it back to the Toronto convention for Layton to wear. When Layton delivered his victory speech later that day, Heath's vibrant Holt Renfrew tie was knotted around his neck.
"This was probably the first of the orange ties Jack became quite famous for wearing," says Mike.
When Heath left his post as Layton's communications director in 2006, the leader gave him back the tie as a parting gift.
Heath packed it away, along with other valued belongings, while he took an extended trip to Australia and New Zealand. The next time he wore it was as a pall bearer at Layton's funeral last August.
After the funeral, Heath gave the tie to Mike Layton, with a note explaining its history.
"I cherished it," Mike says. "It was very kind of him that he would think of me at that time and give over what was maybe one of his last gifts that he got from Jack."
Subsequently, Mike was put in charge of sifting through his father's clothing, deciding what to keep and what to give away. He quickly realized there were an awful lot of ties, "upwards of 200," some decades old.
Most were donated in bulk to charitable organizations. But Mike saved 87 of his father's nicest ties and the family decided to turn them into limited edition neckwear, some to keep as mementoes, others to be auctioned off to raise money for charities closest to Layton's heart.
Labels with Layton's signature were made up, numbered from one through 87, to be sewn onto the ties, some of which had been worn "at pretty pivotal moments for the NDP."
The family decided to give the No. 1 tie — Heath's orange tie worn by Layton the day he won the leadership — to whomever was elected to succeed him last Saturday.
Mike acknowledges it could have been a bit of a problem had Peggy Nash won the leadership.
"We would have had to make it into a scarf or something like that."
As it happened, Layton's one-time Quebec lieutenant, Thomas Mulcair, was crowned NDP leader and, moments afterward, Mike sneaked backstage at the Toronto convention and passed the tie to his father's successor.
"We thought as a family, you know what, this might be a nice keepsake to pass on to sort of make sure that the new leader knew that he has our support and that he would've had Jack's support in taking the party to the next level," says Mike.
For Mulcair, "it was a very touching moment."
"It's an incredible memento and something I'm going to keep preciously," the freshly minted leader said in an interview Wednesday.
As a rule, Mike says his father didn't place any sentimental value on his various ties or other clothing. But this one was different.
"When he was giving it (back) to Jamey, I think that's probably when it started gaining its value ... because it was a very specific gift (to Layton) at a time when he was going through a change in his life and then, when Jamey was going through a change in his, he got the tie back, when I was going through a change in mine, Jamey gave me the tie, and now to Thomas.
"So if there's any piece of clothing that my dad, or myself even, have any emotional connection to, it would have been that."
In an ironic twist of synchronicity, the friend who originally gave the tie to Heath was an organizer for Mulcair during the leadership contest. Heath himself was campaign manager for third-place contender Nathan Cullen.
For Heath, last weekend's convention "was my first real NDP event since the '06 campaign and I had been thinking about Jack quite a bit as it approached."
When Mike told him about the family's plans for the tie, Heath was "quite taken aback and very touched."
"I hope it brings Mulcair good fortune and am honoured to have been a neck around which it has hung."
Whether it ever actually hangs around Mulcair's neck remains to be seen. Mike acknowledges the tie "is not in the best shape" and says no one will be offended if Mulcair doesn't actually wear it.
"It was simply meant to show our support for the next leader. If he does, I'll be flattered ... If the colour's not your cup of tea, I wouldn't be offended."
Since his victory, Mulcair has shown a penchant for blue ties. But he says that's not so much an indicator of colour preference as a matter of having limited options left in his suitcase after weeks on the road and a run-in with a forgotten apple that had been packed somewhere close to the ties.
So, will he actually wear Layton's somewhat tattered orange tie?
"It's something that I'm keeping as an extraordinary reminder of Jack," he says. "I suspect that there will be an occasion in the future where I will wear it and, if I do, I'm going to be sure to phone Michael and let him know."
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