Memories of Jack
I haven’t written much in this space lately, and to tell you the truth, I’m not sure how much more writing I’ll end up doing. But when it comes to paying tribute to a great man on a very sad day, I’ll gladly and gratefully make an exception.
Everyone, it seems, has got at least one Jack Layton story. We’ve all gotten to know Jack as a nation over the past few years in particular, and I think it’s fair to say that he inspired a certain respect and admiration that few of his fellow politicians can claim, even among those who may have disagreed with his politics. The sadness and fond memories shared across the country today are a testament to that, and a testament to Jack’s character.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jack, and the honour of working for him, back in the summer of 2002. At the time, he was a Toronto city councillor running for federal leadership of the New Democratic Party. His predecessor, Alexa McDonough, had announced in June that she would be stepping down from her position, and the search was on across the country for her successor.
I was a recent university graduate, and I’ll admit that I didn’t think very much of politics or politicians at the time. But Jack was holding a campaign launch rally at the Steelworkers Hall, and a good friend of mine named Joshua Walker had managed to talk me into coming downtown and meeting him.
The rally took me totally by surprise. If you’re like me, and you’re able to remember the first time you heard Jack speak, then you know what I’m talking about. Here was a man who was saying all the things that politicians didn’t say, with an enthusiasm and conviction that politicians didn’t have. His plan for the campaign ahead was solid and determined. His vision for a brighter future was contagious. His call for support and commitment was inspiring. And seriously, did you get a load of that moustache?
That night, I joined the NDP. Within the week, I was stuffing envelopes and calling constituents under the energetic direction of Jack’s wife, the fearless Olivia Chow. By the fall, I was on a committee to organize a benefit concert and rally for young voters. And in January of 2003, Jack won the leadership race on a first-round ballot.
That was my first real taste of politics and political organizing. It wouldn’t be my last, of course, but it would end up being the only time I would work with Jack directly. Throughout the years, I did my best to stay in touch and stay involved, which Jack made easy; those who knew him are all too familiar with the effort he put into making time for others, to the limited extent that his insanely busy schedule would allow. If it was in honour of a worthy cause or noble goal, so much the better.
We all have our memories of Jack. We giggled at the sight of him in a Star Trek uniform, we collectively groaned when he accused the Prime Minister of a “hashtag fail,” and we’ve applauded the sheer ballsiness of his crazy, quixotic insistence that he would someday become the Prime Minister himself. And then, after he led the NDP to an unprecedented victory in May, we started to realize that maybe he wasn’t so crazy after all.
But those of us who knew him and worked with him – even to the very limited extent that I did – will have our own memories of him.
I could tell you, for example, about the volunteer appreciation party in 2002, where he spent half the night rambling on about how much he loved his wife. I could tell you about the morning the two of us spent at his house, recording a passage from his book for a track on a benefit compilation that I can guarantee you’ve never heard, because I only had the budget to produce five hundred copies and most of them are still in a box in my garage. I could tell you about the many letters to my MP’s office that quickly turned into personal conversations, questions about my family, and thanks for the fact that I’d taken the time to write.
But most of all, I’d like to tell you about the benefit concert we hosted at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, back in October of 2002. Hundreds of young voters – many of whom had never voted, let alone joined a political party or supported a candidate – came out to catch a few bands and get to know Jack. It was the culmination of weeks of hard work, but it was also a massive party. That’s the way that Jack and Olivia had always gotten things done and gotten people energized.
True to form, Jack spent the night on the floor, shaking hands and getting to know his future constituents. During a headlining set by the Barenaked Ladies, I was hanging out in the wings with an amazing young organizer named Milton, celebrating a job well done – and Jack was just a few feet away, thanking every volunteer he could pin down.
He hadn’t expected the band to call him on stage to address the audience; when they did, he shook a few final hands and turned on his heels, waving to Milton and I as he ran past us. If we hadn’t been there to distract him, he might have noticed that he was about to hit the flight of stairs leading up to the stage. Instead, he tripped at full speed and went down hard on his palms and knees.
Milton and I rushed to help him, but he was already back on his feet and out on the stage, engaging and inspiring close to a thousand young voters – none of whom had any idea that he’d narrowly avoided a gruesome faceplant just a split second before.
That’s my single favourite Jack story. As silly as it might sound now, it captures just about everything I’ve always admired about Jack, from his humanity, his humour and his infectious over-excitement to his perseverance and determination to get the job done. It’s a story that reminds me of Jack as a human being, and yet it’s also a story that ends with him inspiring a thousand people to work together for a brighter future and a better country.
That’s what Jack did best. That was the very key to the NDP’s growth under his leadership, and that will be his legacy for years and years to come. His passing is a sudden and shocking reminder of his humanity, and his absence leaves a lot of us worrying about the future of our country.
But the core belief that drove Jack Layton, and the foundation of both his character and his success in the political arena, was the belief that ordinary people can do great things when they work together. Not only did he believe it, but he proved it time and again – and the greatest way to honour his memory and his legacy is to keep on proving it, day in and day out, together.
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