I didn’t know Jack Layton. I never met him. I’m not really a follower of politics; I’m more of an observer of them. When I read this week that he became the leader of the federal NDP in 2003, my first thought was, “Really? Eight years ago? Is that all?” I don’t know why exactly, but it just seemed to me that he had to have been the leader for longer than that. Perhaps it was because of the ridiculous number of federal elections we have had in Canada in the past decade or so. It seemed to me that Layton must have led the NDP under three or four different Prime Ministers. I know this can’t be the case, but I can’t be bothered to look it up, either. I remembered seeing him in a leaders’ debate for the first time, and thinking that he didn’t seem like much of a leader to me. Time and experience would eventually prove me wrong on that point, as evidenced by the NDP’s historic showing in the most recent federal election. When Jack Layton died this week, I realized that I didn’t know that much about him at all.
I do know this though: Jack Layton owned my facebook News Feed on Tuesday, August 22nd.
If you spent any time on facebook on Tuesday, your experience was likely similar to mine. From the morning, when his death was first reported, until well into the evening, I watched as a steady stream of condolences, links, quotes, and profile picture changes, all in tribute to the late NDP leader, were posted. To be honest, I’d never seen anything quite like it. It was bittersweet to see so many people sharing a moment of solidarity amidst tragedy. It was heartening, though, to see people reacting to something of such significance, especially on a forum where I’ve become accustomed to seeing people bond while complaining about “Jersey Shore” and “Big Brother.”
Compared to a lot of other people, I don’t have a large number of facebook friends, and they fall into a few distinct groups: actual friends, family, former students, former co-workers, and people with whom I went to school (Of course, these groups are not mutually exclusive; a former co-worker can also be a friend, and so forth). The only people on my friends list whom I have not met personally, oddly enough, are relatives who live in other provinces or countries and with whom I have connected because of facebook. All of these groups were well represented in my News Feed on Tuesday, as they paid tribute to a man who obviously affected them in some way. Many posted links to news stories related to Layton’s death. Several quoted from the final paragraph of Layton’s now well-known letter. Even more changed their profile pictures in various ways to honour Layton (My favourite consisted of a simple orange maple leaf on a darker orange background, with a white moustache over the lower half of the leaf). On it went into the evening. One status that I particularly liked simply read, “Jack Layton is dead. What can I say that hasn't already been said?” So much had been written and said at that point, I had to wonder the same thing.
It seems that a lot of people were thinking about Jack Layton this week. I found myself doing a lot of thinking as well. I wasn’t so much thinking about Jack Layton. The effect that his death created, the reactions of others to his death, made me think about other things. Even his letter reminded me of someone else. I may not have been thinking about Jack Layton, but I definitely was thinking because of him.
I was invited to a number of events that were organized in remembrance of Layton, including a vigil to be held in Wentworth Park in Sydney, and one where I was simply asked to wear orange on Saturday. I appreciated all of the invitations (It’s always nice when people remember to include me). One event that particularly intrigued me was called “Love, Hope and Optimism Day in Memory of Jack Layton.” A brief and probably oversimplified description of this particular event is that participants are to do something good in their community in order to honour Layton’s memory. I generally bristle when told how to behave, as I see myself as a good person who does not need an excuse (ecclesiastical or otherwise) to do good things. My sensitive nature might have even found a way to feel offended by such a request, depending on my mood, were it not for the person who sent the “invitation.” I would never accuse someone like Wayne McKay of “jumping on the bandwagon” when it comes to getting involved in one’s community. I’d like to think that every community has a person like Wayne in it. In fact, it would be my sincerest hope that every community would have its own Wayne McKay. If ever anyone was going to suggest that a person should get more involved, Wayne definitely could. For as long as I have known him, Wayne has been doing things to help other people. He is involved in theatre and the arts as a director, writer, performer, and promoter; for years he has worked extensively with youth groups; he is an educator; he is a community activist; he has even offered himself up to the rigours of political campaigning, having been a candidate in both a provincial and a federal election. He is an organizer and a leader (It was Wayne who quickly organized the vigil I mentioned earlier). From what I understand, Jack Layton was a person much like Wayne. It says a lot to me about the societal impact that Jack Layton must have had, that Wayne, and people like him, found Layton to be inspirational, when they undoubtedly inspire many people themselves.
I read Jack Layton’s so-called “Final Letter to Canadians,” and I found to be both moving and thought-provoking. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him, the strength it must have required, to put himself in that mindset, to be able to write such a hopeful letter, knowing what its publication meant, while at the same time not wanting to give up hope that he would continue living. I was especially touched by the paragraph where he talked about how others with cancer should not lose hope because of his death, and how they should “...cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey... .” I found it difficult not to be touched when imagining him as a man who, like so many others, has battled illness, has suffered, and has worried about those he leaves behind, as his loved ones suffered along with him and ultimately had to grieve his loss. This made me think of my dad, and everything he went through during the last years and months of his life, suffering but refusing to give up, all the while worrying about us, his family.
This week, I also witnessed some of the uglier side of human nature, which never seems to be too far away. I saw people arguing, on facebook pages created to honour Layton, about what he would or would not have wanted, about what he would or would not have approved of, about what he did or didn’t believe. I watched as people joined groups meant to pay tribute to Layton just so that they could post mean and hateful things about him. I read a cynical and opportunistic article written by a well-known columnist, the purpose of which was to diminish the inspirational and hopeful message in Layton’s letter. The less said about these people, the better.
Jack Layton died this week, and in dying, he united people, and he made me think. He made me think about family and friends, about love and loss. He made me think about the wonderful people who are out there who do good things to make their communities better places. He made me think about strength and courage. He reminded me, too, that there is still a lot more to be done before the world will really change. In this regard, we can only hope to be more loving, hopeful, and optimistic.