As with many non-NDP politicians and political commentators, I have to admit that in the past I have expressed sharp disagreement with the direction in which Jack Layton took the NDP as leader. However, this does not take away from the immense sadness and shock I felt upon hearing of his passing away.
Whatever criticisms I and others had of him, they are part of the debate that is so important to a healthy democratic society, something Jack Layton himself most surely appreciated.
It does provide a sense of optimism about humanity that people -- be they politicians, commentators, or the general public -- can put aside their differences, pull together in a time of grief, and give tribute to Jack Layton, as well as condolences to his family. It is especially commendable that Prime Minister Harper provided a state funeral for Jack Layton, a fitting tribute for someone who has been an important presence on Canada's political landscape.
While acknowledging disagreement with the NDP and Jack Layton in the recent past, it is important to also give the party and the leader the necessary praise. An important strength of Canada's political system is that we have multiple parties and multiple choices, as opposed to the United States where voters are confined to two monolithic blocs. Voters who are discontented with the traditional choices should have an alternative, and the NDP has been an important alternative.
As well, parties such as the NDP play a valuable role bringing new ideas to the table, such as medicare which was introduced by Tommy Douglas' social democratic government in Saskatchewan, and which became the model for public health-care provision across Canada.
As NDP leader, Jack Layton presented this alternative to Canadians -- leveraging NDP support in minority parliaments and ultimately forming official opposition -- with a characteristic upbeat nature and optimism. This optimism was welcome in a Canadian political culture rife with cynicism, and proved an inspiration to many, especially during the 2011 election campaign.
Mr. Layton's presence in national politics was relatively brief -- only eight years -- yet it seems he was there longer, being a fixture on the Canadian political scene during a period of tumultuous minority Parliaments and frequent elections. With the Liberal Party's revolving door of leaders in recent years and Stephen Harper seen as a polarizing figure, Jack Layton will most likely stand as the most memorable and popular Canadian political leader of our time, his place in the history books and as an NDP hero firmly cemented.
He will live on as a Canadian political legend, comparable to the likes of Tommy Douglas (and even Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, and Robert Stanfield). Mr. Layton will be remembered as a political hero who was tragically taken from us during the height of his success.
Regardless of one's opinion of the NDP as a political entity, taking the party from 13 seats to Official Opposition, blasting previous seat counts and expectations out of the water, is a remarkable accomplishment. New Brunswick NDP leader Dominic Cardy, in a column in the Telegraph Journal, stated that this was a testament to Mr. Layton's hard work building the party. He worked on the unglamorous but necessary nuts and bolts of groundwork organization necessary to build a modern and effective electoral machine.
Jack Layton was the true star of the 2011 election, an excellent campaigner whose cane, first seen as evidence of frailness and ill-health, became a symbol of triumph over adversity in a campaign that engaged many Canadians.
I met Jack Layton when he came to Fredericton during the 2006 New Brunswick provincial election. Mr. Layton was at the grad house on the University of New Brunswick campus. A dense circle of mostly university students surrounded him, asking various policy questions, which he was more than happy to answer. He readily engaged with the youth there, showing himself to be personable and very accessible, especially for a national party leader.
It seems that the University of New Brunswick Grad House was one of his favourite places in Fredericton, as a place where he could share ideas with youth. Apparently, it was the place he came to the last time he visited the city. It was a fitting place to pay tribute to him, as people of various political persuasions gathered there last Tuesday to celebrate his life. It was an event that I was happy to have attended.
In celebrating Jack Layton, it is worth remembering a segment on Rick Mercer's show, in which Mr. Layton gave Mr. Mercer a tour of his energy efficient home in Toronto. The two jibed about solar panels, and about Mr. Layton's mother-in-law being the one in charge. This segment captured the humour and good nature of the NDP leader.
Mr. Layton's passing has raised questions about the implications for the future of the NDP, both of the federal party and its provincial branches. It has also spurred talk about the upcoming leadership race to succeed him. However, there will be plenty of time to talk about these things.
For now, it seems best to pay tribute to him, to celebrate his life and his contributions to Canada's political landscape.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Telegraph Journal.
Hassan Arif is a columnist with the Telegraph Journal in New Brunswick. He is a PhD candidate in urban sociology at the University of New Brunswick and has a background in law and political science. He can be reached at email@example.com.