Fact: I did not support Jack Layton in his bid to become the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party. I backed the runner-up, who was left far behind in the dust of Jack’s first ballot victory at convention that day in 2003.
We were a small group, the runner-up backers; we fit into a single hotel room suite the night of the vote and the victory party.
(Side note: I was single and desperately searching back then; the man who turned out to be my soul and life mate was in that small room too. We didn’t meet until 5 years later, and it took a Lava Life connection to make it happen, even though we’d intersected in many circles over those 5 years. There is a time for every purpose I suppose.)
So, after licking my wounds at the loser victory party and consuming many socialist priced beverages there, I made my way down to Jack’s victory party in the huge ballroom on the main floor of the hotel. Jack had made the promise to bring all New Democrats together in his victory speech. I wanted let him know I was going to hold him to that.
And in my slightly inebriated swagger, I did. I remember pushing my finger into his chest several times to make my point, and the startled look on his face as he assured me he would keep his promise, no doubt casting his eyes about the room for a staffer to herd me away. I was not as wise to the ways of political staffers back then…
In the lead up to the 2004 election, I was employed by the party as a database administrator, given a cubby hole to work in that was at the end of the hall from the boardroom that had become Jack’s makeshift office. He was a party leader who had not yet been elected to a seat in the House, so he didn’t yet have a Parliamentary budget or office.
Visitors to my cubby hole at the end of the long hall were few, but more than once the visitor was Jack. He’d pop his head in the door (there was really no room for two people to stand in that office, so that’s about as much as he could do) and say things like “You’re doing data, right? It’s so important. Thank you for your work.”
Jack won his seat and his place in the House of Commons as the leader of an opposition party. Admittedly, we were the fourth party in the House behind the Conservative official opposition and the third place Bloc Québécois; but the party had gained 5 seats under Jack’s leadership that campaign, it was a minority Parliament so anything could happen, and I had been a New Democrat long enough to know we take our victories where we can.
In the days following the election, when Jack was cleaning out his makeshift boardroom office to move to his official digs on the Hill, I had been assigned another cubby hole down the hall to assume the duties of Parliamentary Aide to my friend Tony Martin, who had won the seat for my home town. Our office on the Hill had not yet been assigned.
I poked my head in the door of Jack’s office and was invited in (the boardroom had more than enough space for more than one person) and to make my amends to our new leader. I don’t know if he remembered me from the convention victory party, he didn’t say. I really didn’t give him any room to interject in my prepared remarks.
I told him that I hadn’t supported him in the beginning but had watched and learned and grew to admire and respect him over the course of the campaign. I told him that I couldn’t imagine any leader doing a better job through the last few months and congratulated and thanked him.
Jack jumped up from behind his desk and asked if he could give me a hug. It was one of the best hugs ever.
Today is the anniversary of Jack’s death in 2011. There were many victories to follow, including the party’s ascension to Her Majesty’s Official Opposition in the election held weeks before on May 2. And there were many sorrows as well. Tony Martin did not win his seat and I had lost my job.
I wrote this on the day after Jack’s death:
Jack Layton, the real deal
The real muscle work on Parliament Hill is done by people who are mostly invisible to the outside world. Nicknamed for the green shirts they wear, they keep the precinct clean, beautiful and functioning, paying careful attention to the needs of Parliamentarians and their staff, and providing unfailing service day and night.
There are the people on the inside, watching the way our country is governed, and I am sure they’ve seen it all. They make work possible for what surely must be one of the most cantankerous, demanding and self-centred group of people gathered in one place. I have never witnessed anything but fairness, grace and courtesy in the way they do their work.
In my seven years working on the Hill for Tony Martin, NDP MP, I have often been awed by the esteem with which many of these workers hold Jack Layton.
I had a signed photo of Jack hanging on the wall behind my desk, often forgotten in the business of the day, but visible over my shoulder to anyone coming through the office door.
I’ve lost count over the years of the number of times a green-shirt, on noticing that photo, took time out of their busy day to tell me how Jack touched them – how Jack was the only party leader who took the time to sit down with them, to ask about working conditions on the Hill and how he could help to improve them, about how much they admired, respected and liked him.
In the past few months, leading up to and after the election, they made regular inquiries about his health, sharing genuine concern and hope for his speedy recovery.
And I don’t think it was just my orange-coloured partisan glasses that observed them taking real delight in the success of Jack’s party in the last federal election.
These are the people for whom Jack worked so tirelessly, and these are the people who knew a real deal when they saw it.
I am so proud to have been a part of Jack’s team, honoured to have heard the stories of the people Jack touched, proud to play a small role in working to make our social democratic values reality. We’ve come a long way, and we still have a long way to go.
Thank you, Jack, for the gift of your leadership. You’ve left great shoes to fill but I, for one, don’t plan to let anyone tell me it can’t be done.
“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world”
July 18 1950 – August 22 2011