When Jack Layton died on Aug. 22, 2011, parts of the country responded with an unexpected outpouring of grief and affection for the NDP leader.
One year later, it is a legacy felt on multiple levels.
For New Democrats, he is the leader who successfully moved them beyond just being a protest party. He gave diehards a taste of pragmatism that wasn’t too harsh for palates long accustomed to ideological purity. In doing so, he also (perhaps in spite of himself) opened the door for the more politically conventional style of the leader who filled his shoes, Thomas Mulcair. One need not be an NDP supporter to be impressed by this accomplishment.
For other Canadians, that legacy is more mixed. In reflecting upon it, the negative must be considered alongside the positive.
The NDP’s success in the 2011 election came, more than anything, because of its breakthrough in Quebec. The near wipeout of the Bloc Québécois was welcome. The manner in which the NDP achieved it, by itself playing to nationalist sentiments, was not. To try to make good on that pitch while governing would have destabilized federalism.
Mr. Layton’s leadership also helped expose how inadequate an alternative to the governing Conservatives the federal Liberals had become. Hopefully, that will yet cause the Liberals to rediscover their way. If they have instead been permanently supplanted, and the NDP does not significantly moderate what remain highly impractical ideas about how to govern, Canada will at some point find itself with a government badly unqualified for economic management.
Had the NDP won government last year - something it did not expect to do heading into the campaign, and had not prepared for - the feel-good story would be tempered with some harsh realities.
That not being the case, it is easier to appreciate what is Mr. Layton’s most unimpeachable legacy. With public cynicism running high, the chord that he struck with many Canadians in his final months and in his passing was a reminder that - with the right combination of decency, optimism, perserverence and grace - it is still possible for our politicians to inspire. Without painting over the more worrisome aspects of his record, that is well worth remembering.
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