With vast numbers of my fellow Canadians, I have been mourning the death of one of our country’s greatest political leaders. Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party–and leader of the official opposition in parliament–died on Monday after succumbing to cancer. He was 61.
Layton was a great advocate for the poor, for women, for Canada’s aboriginal people, for the LGBT community. He was a voice for ordinary people in a political system that most of us feel quite alienated from. He was a champion of peace and environmental responsibility, in stark contrast to the militaristic and environmentally destructive policies of the governing Conservatives.
When I heard the news on Monday I was quite dismayed. It was because of Jack Layton that I switched my political allegiance to the NDP in 2003, despite the fact that they were only the fourth-largest party and were not considered by anyone to be a serious threat to win a federal election, or even form the official opposition (which is what happens to the party that comes in second).
This past May, the NDP surprised everyone–except maybe Jack himself–by increasing their representation in the House of Commons from 37 seats to 103, making Layton Leader of the Official Opposition. That was the good news. The bad news was that the Conservative Party won, after several failed attempts, a majority of the seats–despite winning less than 40% of the popular vote. (Layton was a champion of proportional representation, which would effectively close Canada’s yawning democratic deficit; however, if a party can win a majority government with less than 40% of the popular vote, they have little incentive to change the system.)
The ascendancy of the Conservative Party has seemed to many people like a dark cloud gathering over this country. For many of us, Jack was a great sign of hope; the Conservatives might do things we don’t like, but not without a fight.
His death, coming at the pinnacle of his career, has been a major blow to this country. He was probably the only person in Canada whose death could inspire mourning on such a massive scale–among the many tributes, the CN Tower and even Niagara Falls are being illuminated tonight with orange light–the colour associated with the NDP. And I even changed the colour of my header.
So why does his death give me hope? Shouldn’t it do the opposite?
I imagine a lot of other Canadians have had an experience similar to my own: becoming increasingly disillusioned with our federal government, feeling that progressive values were losing favour among the Canadian people. Before this year the conventional wisdom was that the progressive NDP would never compete with the centrist Liberals, who were therefore our only hope to stop the Conservatives. It was commonly said that a vote for the NDP was a wasted vote.
I imagine a lot of other people recognised, as I did, that this man embodied our deeply-held values, but had no idea how many other people felt the same way.
The sheer scale of the grief should serve as a wake-up call: progressives are not an insignificant minority. My hope is that enough people will realise this and the non-conservative majority in this country will get its act together.