On Monday, August 22, 2011, NDP leader Jack Layton died. His death was not completely unexpected: he had earlier been treated for prostate cancer, and he announced just weeks ago that he had developed a new tumour. He had also had a hip replacement, as a result of which he was seen in public using a cane. Surprise or no surprise, though, Layton’s passing was mourned by many, not only by his family but by Canadians of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and even political leanings. He is scheduled to be given a state funeral.
Personally, I have never voted for Jack Layton or the NDP for that matter. The times that I have cast a ballot, I’ve fluctuated between the Liberals and Conservatives. I tend to fall in the ‘socially liberal, fiscally conservative’ category, the latter of which does not leave much room for supporting the New Democratic Party. Still, I remember telling a consistently Conservative friend a few months before Layton’s death that regardless of one’s political philosophy, few people could dispute that the NDP leader was a decent and honourable man. My friend agreed.
Another thing that could not help but impress the public about Jack Layton was the fact that he managed to do what would have been unthinkable even a year ago: he made the NDP the official Opposition. While the NDP has been elected in various provinces at different times, at the federal level it has basically been relegated to the sidelines. I sometimes wonder whether Bob Rae, once the NDP Premier of Ontario, regrets ‘jumping ship’ to the Liberals now that his former party has more seats than his present one.
The NDP’s relative success in the election – I say ‘relative’ because the Conservatives are after all a majority government – was in my view due to several factors. A large number of NDP seats were obtained in Quebec from the Bloc Quebecois. The Quebec separatist movement has always had its highs and lows. The Toronto Spanish-language newspaper El Centroamericano speculates that the movement is losing steam as Francophone Quebecers realize that it might be more difficult for an independent Quebec to be self-sufficient now that its prospective trading partner the United States is currently in the economic doldrums. As a left-wing party, the NDP in a sense filled in the gap for many Quebecers.
However, another reason behind the NDP’s newfound success may be its leader himself. Jack Layton certainly came across as a very personable and approachable figure – a reality recognized even by non-NDP supporters like me. In this respect Layton had the edge over his Liberal counterpart Michael Ignatieff, who basically lacked the charisma to win over the people of Canada as a whole. Of course approachability is not the only factor in a candidate’s victory or defeat. If that were the case, the NDP under Layton would have garnered more votes than the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper. Nonetheless, I believe that Layton’s personality played some role in the last election.
As well, part of Jack Layton’s appeal lay in the confidence he exuded. This was evident, for example, in his promise even after he was diagnosed with a second cancer that he would ‘be back.’ Unfortunately, he never did ‘come back,’ but for his followers this message still holds. Although I have never been one of Layton’s followers, I join other Canadians in mourning his passing. Canada has lost a great leader. At least we can take some comfort in the fact that he died peacefully at home with his family. Since we all must die one day, the least we can ask is that our death be as tranquil as possible. We shall see who will carry on his legacy.