The Strange Posthumous Popularity of Jack Layton

By Cam Mather

For my American readers I should explain that Jack Layton, the official leader of the opposition in our Parliament (kind of like your Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner) died recently. There was a huge outpouring of grief in Canada, almost way more than it seemed that the occasion warranted. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I really liked Jack Layton. I never voted for him, but he was a nice guy. Jack led the New Democratic Party, or NDP, which is Canada’s democratic socialist party. To some Americans “socialist” is a dirty word, but here in Canada most of us are comfortable having a socialist party around. Tommy Douglas, one of the founding members of the NDP, was a preacher from Saskatchewan who fought his whole life for universal healthcare. It wasn’t until the other political parties saw how popular this was in the 60s that they latched on to it and implemented it. The NDP also fought for things like the Canada Pension Plan, Unemployment Insurance, a minimum wage … just about any socially progressive legislation is a result of their influence. They have never ever held power federally, but they are by far the most populist party the country has ever had and the reason we have these programs.

But most people never voted for the NDP. Heck, most people didn’t vote for our current Conservative government, but our archaic “first past the post” system allows them to form a majority government with only 39.62% of the popular vote. Now that’s democracy!

In the last election Jack Layton’s NDP got 30% of the vote and formed the opposition, mostly as a backlash against the Bloc Quebecois in Québec.  Jack had only been Leader of the Opposition for a couple of months before he had to resign to deal with another round of cancer.

While it’s very sad that he died and especially sad that he died of cancer, I still can’t get my head around the response of so many Canadians. He was the first leader of the opposition since about 1897 or something to get a state funeral. Thousands and thousands of people walked past his coffin at the Parliament buildings. Thousands stood by the road whenever they moved his coffin. Tens of thousands wanted to go the funeral to the point that they had to set up a huge TV outside for the crowds.

While I think that this outward display of emotion is a good thing, I just can’t explain it. Jack was a former Toronto Councilor who got into federal politics. In the 2008 election he only got 18% of the popular vote. So why was there such an over-the-top outpouring of grief for a guy most of them never voted for?

It seems to me today everything has to be over the top. It has to be extreme. When someone well known dies their front walkway is quickly covered in a sea of cut flowers. It’s not enough to have junk food at the Canadian National Exhibition, you have to have a burger on a Krispee Kreme donut with bacon and cheese that has more calories than a human should eat in a day. Sports have to be extreme. You can’t even just play poker anymore, you have to have ultimate, extreme, high stakes poker championships. Where’s this all coming from? Is this just the logical direction of capitalism? If so, where does it end?

I am not being critical of anyone for his or her grief about Jack Layton. I was very sad too, especially after the fall Michelle and I had. Jack and his party represent the reason I have such a high standard of living. His party has always fought for a more equitable distribution of the wealth that a country like Canada can generate.

Running a business on the scale that Michelle and I do, if we were in the U.S. I’m not sure we could afford reasonable healthcare, and Michelle’s breast cancer might have bankrupted us. As it was, it didn’t cost a dime, other than lost productivity. My Mom, who had several surgeries and chemo to deal with her pancreatic cancer before she died, and my Dad’s knee replacement and on-going back problems, cost our healthcare system hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they never had to pay a penny out of pocket.

I think most Canadians “get” how lucky we are to have such a system. And I think what Jack’s death showed is that they also “get” why we have such a system. While it may have been brought in by Liberals or Conservatives, it would never have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for those socialist NDPers. We can have a minimum wage, and social support programs, and healthcare, and still have innovative, world-class companies like the “Blackberry” maker Research In Motion.

Jack Layton spoke at a Canadian Solar Industries meeting I went to a few years ago. My daughter Nicole was a Political Science student at university at the time so I convinced her to come to the meeting. Jack, like all chameleon-like politicians, played to the audience, and told the story of how his engineer father helped his sons to design a system using the sun to heat the family’s swimming pool. This extended the season and was particularly important since swimming gave his mother relief from her arthritis. From there Jack went on to explain how he basically invented the solar industry in Canada in the 1960s, or so Nicole and often joked whenever we discussed Jack. I’m sure when he spoke to the Canadian Widget Manufacturer’s Association he was instrumental in their industry as well, as all good politicians would be.

Jack smiled a lot, road his bike all the time, and mostly said nice things about people. And that seemed to resonate with Canadians. I have no doubt that my steel-working, life-long-union-member, NDP-supporting father-in-law Lorne welcomed Jack at the pearly gates along with Tommy Douglas. I believe the three of them are discussing politics as I write and trying to get a more equitable distribution of all things of importance up there.

In the meantime, those of us down here who have been the recipients of their vision for social justice will look forward to seeing who is chosen as the new leader of the NDP to fill his shoes. His bicycle-riding shoes. We may never vote for them, but we’re glad they’ll be around.

7 Responses to “The Strange Posthumous Popularity of Jack Layton”

  • propercharlie:

    Greetings Mr. Mather,

    I’m interested in your approach concerning self-reliance and getting off the grid. However, I see a contradiction. Why would government be interested in helping people acheive self-reliance? Central planners need taxpayers to keep them in their jobs. Once people get entitlements they never want to give them up. They are quite literally addicted. I don’t see the motivation – for anyone either giving or getting government money – where this would encourage self-reliance. [As an afterthought, do you receive any government money?]

    As a corollary, isn’t there a moral problem with dependency? For instance, if I’m a person who abuses my body and I know someone else will pay for my vice why should I bother to struggle against it? Especially, if my society implicitly rewards my bad behavior through “free” therapeutic treatment rather than hold me responsible for the abuse. And won’t people who are compelled to pay for my subsequent health problems resent doing so? Especially if I demand it and force them to pay in increasingly straightened circumstances. By compelling virtue don’t we destroy the value of it?



  • Ah, I love those Aussie expressions! 🙂

  • Oh Connie… Thank you for my morning chuckle! ~Michelle~

  • Connie Murray:

    In America can only hope to have politicians like Jack Layton — politicians who put their people ahead of their political parties. Now we are being told by the Tea Party that we must cut down on various social programs to pay for emergency relief and rescue. So for a lot of folks, your choice will be to drown immediately or starve slowly.

  • Will:

    I think Jack was what Aussies call a ‘fair dinkum bloke’. The real thing, as much as a pollie can be, and he gave us hope at the federal level of politics. (For the record, I’m a Pommie born, Aussie grown Canuck)

  • I think the outpouring was for two things. The first is as you said, most Canadians realize that the progressive social policies we have originated with the NDP. Jack represented those things for which Canadians are grateful, as with universal healthcare. They also grieved for what might have been, as Richard said. People were coming around to the idea of Jack as a real alternative to the Conservatives. Now we have no one to oppose the right and people grieved that too.

    Canada was blessed to have someone like Jack in politics. I hope good people were inspired by his example to take up politics. Heaven only knows, we need more good people in there.

    Sustainable Living Blog

  • I’m an American who spends several months a year in Canada, and followed the Layton campaign closely. I think the response to Layton was a response to the loss of a politician whom they had just seen undergo a transformation on the campaign trail.

    Having participated in electoral politics in the U.S. for 3 decades, my expectations for politicians are not high. But one of the wonders of politics is that from time to time, a politician gets to the right place at the right time and shows us that he or she is capable of growing, of changing, of becoming more than what we had previously seen in that person. In the U.S., FDR is one example, a patrician who infuriated the class he was born in when he began experimenting with unprecedented federal interventions to end the Depression.

    Watching Layton on the stump this spring, I think he was able to communicate to the voters that he was becoming a different person, that he was moving from being the leader of a third-place party to someone whom he (and the voters) could imagine leading the country.

    So the outpouring of grief was not at all about who Layton had been before this last campaign. People saw during the campaign that Layton was capable of the kind of growth that we hope for but almost never find in our politicians. So people were reacting to a much greater tragedy than one would have imagined from Layton’s previous record.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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