I should have gotten this post up yesterday. It didn't happen. I was up to my eyeballs organizing an event that had to do with the topic of this post: the death of Jack Layton.
For those not familiar with Canadian politics, Jack Layton was the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada from 2003-2011. The NDP is Canada's social democratic party; as I've suggested before: think the liberal wing of the US Democratic Party.
On August 22, 2011, Layton passed away due to an unspecified form of cancer. His death was significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, as leader of a federal party for eight years, Layton had become something of a fixture in Canadian politics. Only months prior, Layton had also realized the greatest political success of his career and of his party's history, electing 103 candidates to Parliament and forming the country's Official Opposition for the first time ever.
But it was Layton's Letter to Canadians, written during his final days on the planet, that truly captured the hearts and minds of the country. Layton's parting words rank among the most sincere and inspiring words I've ever encountered in politics and remain a main stay of reference in political circles of all varieties:
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.
So last night, I got together with about 150 other Calgarians and we remembered Jack Layton; what he meant to us, what he meant to the country, and what his message continues to mean for our future.
As the old saying goes, "You don't know what you've got until it's gone." It's funny that many of us look back and see now what we lost in Jack Layton. Funny because it was there all along, had we taken the time to lift our heads from the easily set in myopia of our lives and notice.
The world became enraptured with Barack Obama during the 2008 US presidential election. It is, of course, easy to get wrapped up in US politics, America being arguably the most powerful country on the planet. But there really was something about Barack Obama that crossed national boundaries and inpsired people on a global level.
I've sometimes heard people wish that we could have something like that in Canada. I would argue that we did.
In all honesty, watch this tribute video to Layton, made up mostly of clips from the 2011 election, and tell me your heart doesn't skip a beat in the same way it might have watching Obama speak in 2008:
While Jack left us just as the strength and potential of his political influence was reaching its height, what he left us with is a far more powerful opportunity.
The mythology of Jack Layton's life, work, and passing is that he succeeded in demonstrating that what he talked about in those clips was possible -- and then he was gone. No one really saw the sort of breakthrough that NDP realized in the final election he lead it coming.
The NDP had always been a fourth string party and suddenly, on the strength of Layton's vision and the hard work of a lot of dedicated people who believed in that vision, it jumped to the number two spot. Today, the NDP is polling neck-and-neck with the governing Conservative Party and even pulling head in others.
Realizing the ideas that Layton talks about in those clips is no longer a dream, it is a very real possibility. And yet, the man who was so instrumental in getting his party to that point is no longer with us. As difficult as Jack Layton's death was for a lot of people, it has also unfolded in a way that stands to be even more powerful than his continued presence might have been.
For some people, those words are the equivalent of blasphemy. And believe me when I say that there is no world in which I wish Jack Layton weren't still around. But hear me out.
Layton built a sort of momentum and energy in this country that arguably hasn't been seen in generations. He provided a message that inspired a whole cross-section of historically apathetic voters to action. In many ways, Jack Layton's work in politics gave launched a generation of Canadian activists who are just now coming into their own at all levels of Canadian politics.
Layton's death and absence; however, mean that those of us moved by his message don't have him to rely on anymore. We can't just say, "Well, I really want to see a better country, so I'm glad that Jack is out there making it happen." Because Jack isn't out there making it happen, now it's up to us to make it happen.
The proximity of Layton's death to the demonstrated plausibility of his vision has compelled people to take that message and that vision on, to make it there own, to carry it forward. This phenomenon is captured in a saying that has emerged within the NDP: I Am The Layton Legacy.
I could feel the palpable sense in which those words are meaningful beyond merely as a clever turn of phrase last night as I talked with all sorts of different people who for the first time felt that something different was possible even in a city as politically monotone as Calgary. "We can do better. We must do better. We're going to roll up our sleeves, get to work, and we will not stop until the job is done."
This is sentiment that extends beyond partisan lines. There are people who are not and probably never will be members of the NDP who share that vision as vividly as any New Democrat. In fact, I'm working with some of them right now.
Political predictions are a mug's game, but I'm moved to hazzard one here. Jack Layton's death was the end of one man's life, but is also gave birth to a movement that one year later is strong and getting stronger. Over the next few years, I believe you are going to see that movement spread across this country and do amazing things. It will be loving. It will be hopeful. It will be optimistic. And, believe me, it will change the world.