08/31/2011 02:49 EDT | Updated 10/31/2011 05:12 EDT

A Belated Note From Jack Layton's Mourning Chaff

I suppose crying over Jack's death makes me a member of what Christie Blatchford called "the mourning chaff;" those who make a spectacle out of a death they weren't affected by. I dislike this idea of a mourning hierarchy. This isn't a game of Who's the Saddest. This idea undermines how he affected Canadians.


Like many Canadians, I was shocked to hear about Jack Layton's death. I had just arrived at work and opened Tweetdeck to read a timeline of sincere condolences, expressions of grief, and links to obituaries. And I cried.

It was unexpected. I didn't know Jack. I didn't campaign for him or his party. I never saw him in person. I've never been directly involved in politics beyond voting or complaining about various issues on the Internet. So when I found myself drinking with friends at a bar that night, talking about how sad we were, it was a bit of a surprise.

I suppose this makes me a member of what Christie Blatchford called "the mourning chaff," those who make a spectacle out of a death they weren't affected by.

For those not in the know, Blatchford published this piece the day Jack died. She spends most of her time tearing up his last letter to Canadians and then chastising those who dare mourn him in public. An example:

Held out as evidence of Canadians' great love for Mr. Layton were the makeshift memorials of flowers, notes that appeared at his Toronto constituency office and on Parliament Hill, and in condolences in social media.

In truth, none of that is remotely unusual, or spontaneous, but rather the norm in the modern world, and it has been thus since Princess Diana died, the phenomenon now fed if not led online. People the planet over routinely weep for those they have never met and in some instances likely never much thought about before; what once would have been deemed mawkish is now considered perfectly appropriate.

Certainly, Canadians liked Mr. Layton, but the public over-the-top nature of such events -- by fans for lost celebrities they never met, by television personalities for those they interviewed once for 10 minutes, by the sad and lost for the dead -- make it if not impossible then difficult to separate the mourning wheat from the mourning chaff. His loss -- his specific loss and his specific accomplishments -- are thus diminished.

I dislike this idea of a mourning hierarchy. This isn't a game of Who's the Saddest. Of course those closest to Jack will hurt the most -- we don't need an opinion piece to tell us that. But what actually diminishes Jack's accomplishments isn't public grief (or "spectacle," as Blatchford would call it); it's undermining how he affected Canadians.

I owe the little bit of political optimism I have to Jack. (And more recently, city councillors like Adam Vaughan and Kristyn Wong-Tam.) I've always cared about things and have been an activist, but I hadn't been very political until recently. My awareness grew in adolescence during heated conversations with new left-leaning friends and near-constant listening to punk music written during the Bush administration. I was easily influenced. For example, I became a vegetarian after many repeats of Propagandhi's Less Talk, More Rock. (Embarrassing Emma fact of the day: I even dated someone in a band called Left for Life.) I never considered myself an anarchist but I did develop a deep-rooted distrust of politicians and government that persists to this day.

The more I learned about Jack, the more I believed there are good people who pursue a career in politics for the right reasons. He (more often than not) stood for things I stand for: LGBT and reproductive rights, environmental initiatives, supporting immigrants and poorer Canadians, etc. He cared less about power and status and more about positive change. Since I reached voting age my ballots have always gone to the NDP.

I'm still skeptical. I tend to agree with my father when he says all politicians are crooks and I was very critical of Jack during the federal campaign. I cringed every time he said "Michael Ignatieff is Harper's best friend" during the leader debates, which happened a lot. I thought a few of the NDP policies were a bit short-sighted. But I trusted the thought of Jack as prime minister because, put simply, I thought he was the only candidate who actually cared about Canadians. Being able to break that disillusionment -- and not falsely -- was Jack's greatest accomplishment.

Until last Monday, I'd never cried over the death of someone I've never met. I'd never gathered a group of people to toast a politician. I'd never found myself inspired to run for council to improve the city we both loved. That doesn't diminish Jack's accomplishments. It honours them.