Long after the political tussles of this year’s federal election have been forgotten, Jack Layton’s courage and grace in leading his party when he was suffering from cancer will be recalled, and will inspire. He was tireless in fighting for what he believes in and in doing the work that he loves. He never gave an inch to his prostate cancer or to his fractured hip, save to use a crutch, and later a cane, when he walked.
And so to watch his news conference on Monday, to find him so gaunt, so ill, to learn of the presence of a new cancer was deeply moving. His spirit seemed unchanged. His voice was strained but clear; his eyes still held some of the Layton sparkle; and when he was done, he strode off, cane in hand, with a brisk step. Though physically smaller, he was in no way diminished.
Mr. Layton is from a political family: his father, Robert, was a Conservative cabinet minister, and his grandfather, Gilbert, was a Union Nationale cabinet minister in Quebec. In his obvious love of politics, Mr. Layton is a match for any other leader. It comes across as an expression of love of life, which is why, perhaps, Canadians feel they know Mr. Layton in a way they may not know other political leaders. And it is why his illness is a reminder that, in a democracy, what unites us is much more important than disagreements over policies.
There is not a Canadian family left unmarked by cancer. Even as science advances, as death rates for some cancers drop, no cure is in sight. Mr. Layton, who turned 61 a week ago, may have made himself vulnerable by courting exhaustion during a hotly contested election, or maybe it made no difference at all; what does matter is that he chose to fight cancer on his own terms.
And then to become Opposition Leader, to achieve the greatest result in the history of the federal New Democratic Party, was remarkable. When he said on Monday he will step aside until September, to focus on his fight, he was like one of those hockey players, one of the very grittiest, who is knocked down and is struggling to rise, and the announcer says, “If he’s down, you know he’s hurting real bad.” All Canadians stand behind him in hoping he is back in September, or at some later date, to lead his party again.
When he started his political career on Toronto City Council, as Christmas was approaching in 1983, he wrote a letter to his mother in Montreal: “Things went well. It doesn’t look too likely that I’ll be getting home for a while.” Politics has been his true home almost ever since, and things have been going better than ever. For now, though, politics can wait.
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