Canada is so small, in so many ways.
Jack Layton’s son is my representative on Toronto City Council. His wife Olivia Chow has been my MP for some years.
In the late 1980s, I interviewed Layton, then a Toronto city councillor, for a radio thing I was doing. He was prickly, difficult and, frankly, a terrible interview. The charisma would come later and come gradually. Layton’s triumph came in the federal election campaign in the spring of this year and not just in the number of seats the NDP won.
What allows a politician to be truly appealing on TV - and most Canadians gain their binding impression of a politician during an election campaign from TV coverage - is an underpining, a core aspect of character that simply cannot be faked. What voters want as they watch an election campaign unroll – what they need in the narrative arc of any story – is something they can connect with.
Layton's campaign this spring took off because he was, in the television narrative that unfolded, the guy you rooted for regardless of how you eventually voted. There was a key element that was clearly authentic – the man’s recovery from illness and his fortitude as he went about ceaselessly, using that cane.
It was enormously powerful imagery, one that spoke through television to a key Canadian narrative. There were echoes of one strand of our history and of model Canadian values being demonstrated. Think about it. A man who has had prostate cancer and hip surgery, traipsing the country, coast to coast to coast, with that cane. In pain, but determined. There existed, in the way Canadians absorbed these images, intuitive echoes of others who have tried to traipse the country, not with a cane but with an artificial limb or, to cross Canada and then circle the world, in a wheelchair.
This is not to say that Layton’s election campaign was the equivalent of Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope or Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion tour. But certain stories have a profound effect on the Canadian consciousness. The idea of self-sacrifice is elemental to us, the struggle for survival, against the elements, against the odds, is crucial too.
Certain stories are central to the development of national identity and the story of a journey, in pain, from coast to coast, is part of our identity as it evolves. We are in thrall to it. Among other things, these stories have shaped our definition of integrity. Layton’s election campaign, seen day after day on TV, connected intuitively to the stories of others that warm our hearts and remind us of our best aspects. The iconography of Layton’s campaign on TV - the cane, the limp, the smiling determination to overcome, was the entry point for Canadians to connect to the NDP leader and through him, to his party.
All political parties and their leaders have a strategy to create a narrative that suits their purposes. Sometimes the strategy is to control the narrative of an election campaign. Sometimes, on a grander scale, the strategy is to shift the narrative of a country’s history so that a party’s values are perceived as central to that narrative. We have seen the Conservative party attempt to reshape the Canadian narrative - something freely acknowledged in Jane Taber’s interviews with senior Tories in her recent piece, “Harper spins a new brand of patriotism.” National symbols matter. National ideals of “pride” and “bravery” are vital in all of this.
In Layton’s election campaign the narrative was clearly not faked, or mere strategy: The person was the message and the message was the person. It’s how television works, to isolate and highlight authenticity.
What nobody was saying during the campaign, because some things are comprehended naturally and only fully recognized later, was the implied contrast between the Layton narrative and the Conservative narrative. While the Conservatives have been anxious to define the Canadian idea of self-sacrifice as something done in a military context, as a warrior, with guns and tanks, what was implied in the Layton narrative was different. It reminded Canadians that the phrase “our brave men and women” doesn’t just mean the military, but those who traipse from coast to coast, in pain, asking the country to think about overcoming cancer and helping those with spinal cord injuries.
The opinion polls don't explain such nuances. The analysts, pundits and reporters tend to overlook such details. They talk about spin, as if “spin” explained how stories resonate above and below the surface while election campaigns play out on TV. In Layton's case there was nothing to spin because the authenticity was just there, through echoes of other journeys done in pain.
The last time I saw Jack Layton in person was last month at what was one of his last public appearances. He was at the Gay Pride Parade in Toronto on July 3, an event many people made a point of attending when the Mayor of Toronto decided he’d skip it and go to the cottage. Layton could probably have done without the stress of being present. As the rickshaw he was in, with Olivia Chow, turned off Yonge St., a huge crowd cheered, and he waved his cane in the air.