OTTAWA - Perhaps Canadians are taking Jack Layton's dying wish to heart.
From his death bed last summer, the late NDP leader exhorted people to be more loving, hopeful and optimistic. If the unprecedented outpouring of grief that ensued — and the fond memories Canadians continue to cherish a year later — are any indication, it could be they're doing just that.
At the very least, they've banished the cynicism normally reserved for politicians.
In the days that followed Layton's death last Aug. 22, the odd critic could be heard muttering about a maudlin spectacle of group mourning — thousands scribbling emotional chalk messages and leaving flowers, stuffed toys, cans of Orange Crush and other mementoes at impromptu memorials.
"Teddy-bear grief," some sniffed. A mawkish over-reaction, they said, to the death of someone most Canadians had never met and who had never risen higher than leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition — a position he held for only for a few short months before succumbing to cancer.
Yet, even 12 months removed from the emotional intensity of the moment, a new poll suggests a majority of people believe last year's remarkable national display of remembrance was both authentic and appropriate — and they continue to hold Layton and his legacy in high esteem.
Some 62 per cent of respondents to the poll, conducted by Harris-Decima for The Canadian Press, said they viewed the torrent of public grief for Layton as genuine, compared with just 27 per cent who said they felt mourners simply got caught up in the moment.
More than 75 per cent felt it was appropriate to hold a state funeral for Layton, although they were split 37-39 on whether such an honour — normally reserved for former and current governors general, prime ministers and sitting members of cabinet — should be routinely extended to all leaders of the Opposition.
And a whopping 91 per cent said they believe Layton made a positive contribution to Canada, 33 per cent of them describing his contribution as "very positive."
The poll asked the same question about other Canadian political figures as well.
Late Conservative leader Robert Stanfield was deemed to have made a positive contribution by 81 per cent of respondents; only 11 per cent said "very positive." Ed Broadbent, the most popular NDP leader before Layton, earned numbers of 78 per cent and 12 per cent.
The past two Liberal leaders, Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, got a positive rating from only 36 and 30 per cent respectively, with fewer than three per cent describing their efforts as very positive.
The telephone poll of just over 1,000 Canadians was conducted Aug. 2-5 and is considered accurate within a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.
Not since Pierre Trudeau's death in 2000 have Canadians been so moved by the death of a politician. And Trudeau had been prime minister for 15 years, with a much longer legacy of concrete contributions to his credit, not least of which was the historic patriation of the Constitution with a Charter of Rights.
So what was it about Jack Layton that evoked, and continues to evoke, such an emotional response?
His widow, Toronto MP Olivia Chow, said she believes it's partly empathy — most people have been touched by cancer in their own lives. She also cited admiration for Layton's determination, not just in fighting cancer, but in campaigning vigorously for the May 2011 election — brandishing his cane like a totem — despite having undergone hip surgery only weeks earlier.
But more than anything, she said, it's a personal response to a politician who managed to connect with everyday Canadians — so much so that most of them referred to him simply by his first name.
"Jack is Jack," Chow said in an interview, summing up how she believes Canadians saw her husband. "He's an ordinary guy, he's one of us and, gosh, look what happened to him."
Though he was never in a position of power, she continued, Layton managed to accomplish "some small things, not great things," impressing people in particular with his optimistic outlook and sheer determination, espousing human values that touched a chord with many.
That's not just wishful thinking by Layton's loved ones. Grief experts have drawn the same conclusion.
It matters not that most Canadians never actually met Layton, said David Kessler, one of the world's foremost experts on grief and loss: in a media-saturated age, people feel like they do know politicians, entertainers and celebrities because they follow their careers and become engaged in their lives.
Even so, he said, the phenomenon of public grief only materializes for those who've managed to "really grab our emotions."
"And that's the key," said Kessler, Los Angeles-based collaborator of the legendary pioneering grief researcher Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
"(Layton) triggered something in people. We grieve for people we love and we grieve for people we hate. We don't grieve for people we're indifferent to. So the very fact that he has brought about this response means that he touched people's lives.
"In this case, it shows people truly cared about him ... he obviously struck a chord with people."
The response was doubtless magnified by the cruel timing of Layton's death — just three months after leading the NDP out of the political wilderness for the first time in its 50-year history, seemingly within reach of the promised land: the Prime Minister's Office.
"That's a stunning reminder of mortality, everyone's mortality," said John Douglas Belshaw, a Vancouver-based demographer who has researched the history of mourning in Canada.
"It's sad and that, I think, is what touched people as much as anything."
Belshaw, the co-author of "Private Grief, Public Mourning: The Rise of the Roadside Shrine in British Columbia," suspects those who believe Layton made a positive contribution to Canada are thinking more of his personal integrity and sunny disposition than concrete changes to public policy.
Alone of the political leaders in Ottawa, Layton was "a decent, approachable, affable human being" who actually knew how to smile without looking pained or posed, he said — something of a contrast to his main opponents in the last election, Stephen Harper and Ignatieff.
There's a little known sixth stage of grief — "making meaning" of death — in addition to Kubler-Ross's famous five: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, Kessler said. New Democrats appear to be well into that sixth stage as they prepare to mark Wednesday's first anniversary of Layton's death.
The family and the Broadbent Institute have organized a website, DearJack.ca., which encourages Canadians to post not simply their fond memories of Layton but to detail how they intend to help ensure that Layton's dream of a more just, fair and egalitarian Canada comes true. The best of those postings will be featured at a tribute in Toronto and other community-based memorials across the country.
Layton himself would have little patience with simply wallowing in sorrow over his loss, said Chow.
"Probably (he) would say, 'Stop looking backwards, just go and form the first New Democratic government in 2015, make history, and don't let them tell you it can't be done.' He'd probably say that, I'm sure.
"And, by the way, make sure the grandkids can swim and play lots."
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