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A man reads from a wall that has been made into a tribute to the late NDP leader Jack Layton at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Tuesday August 23, 2011. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Aaron Vincent Elkaim/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A man reads from a wall that has been made into a tribute to the late NDP leader Jack Layton at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Tuesday August 23, 2011. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Aaron Vincent Elkaim/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Jack Layton: You don't know what you've got till it's gone Add to ...

I've lived long enough in Toronto that Jack Layton was my archetypal politician: He was the first politician to shake my hand, and ask me to vote for him (for city councillor) – which I did, in the first election in which I ever voted. Much more often than not, I agreed with him on the issues of the day, and of the days after that.

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The police raids on Toronto's gay bathhouses were wrong. Mr. Layton said that, forcefully. He also understood the importance of biking to the city, long before it became fashionable. While the details are in dispute (did he sketch the design on a napkin in a bar, or not?), there are simple elegant bike rings all over Toronto because of Jack Layton.

One small way to commemorate his 20 years on city council might be to add 61 new bike rings (his age), with small plaques or metal mustaches on each.

As journalist Edward Keenan wrote in local weekly The Grid this week, Mr. Layton was “a hopemonger of the first order before Obama was out of school.” But Mr. Keenan, who once campaigned for Mr. Layton, is certain this perennial optimism was genuine, as are many others.

“Unlike some politicians who turn it on in public, then become themselves behind closed doors, there was no such distinction with Jack,” says Lauren Dobson-Hughes, who interned with the NDP in 2004 and went on to be a researcher in Mr. Layton's office.

“Knowing that the majority [of interns]are political geeks honing their judgment and analysis, he'd ask them their thoughts or assessment of a current political happening. … He was genuinely interested. Later, when one of my own interns mentioned that the wedding anniversary of her parents was coming up in a few months, he remembered … and, on that date, sent her parents a lovely card of congratulations.”

His work life and his home life were reportedly equally seamless. As current Toronto city councillor Adam Vaughan remembers, “Their house was planning and politics all the time. There were phone lines running everywhere. It felt as if there were more phone lines in that house than at City Hall and people coming and going all the time. … [There]are probably five doorbells that don't work, because so many people came by and banged on those doorbells that they broke, and they'd just get another.”

So many people here have had Layton moments. My friend Carol-Anne Gillis, now living in Nova Scotia, recalls Mr. Layton hosting a Christmas charity art auction at the pretty-damn-gay Buddies In Bad Times Theatre in the 1990s: “He wore leather chaps and a Santa hat and Olivia was his helper. They came and joked with me – I was working the coat check.”

Mathew Shepherd, now a creative strategist in Sherbrooke, recalled on an Internet forum being a student in residence in Toronto in 1993 when “a ‘kid,' from my perspective now,” came by, asking him how he was going to vote. “I wind up asking him I-don't-remember-what. I was being an ass … probably just trying to stump this person. … And he says, ‘Hang on a minute, I'll go get Jack.' ” Minutes later, Jack Layton knocked at the door.

“He introduces himself and I invite him into my [crappy]residence common space and he comes in and sits down and we have a 10-minute conversation. I'm 20, I'm a [crappy]kid that doesn't know anything about anything, and he comes in and sits down and treats me as seriously as a Fortune 500 CEO or a labour leader. …

“On the way out, he gives me a tea towel with his picture printed on it, riding information … and he says, ‘I was thinking before the election of how wasteful all those posters are, and thought it might be a good idea if I gave people something useful for a change.' I voted for Jack. I've been voting NDP ever since that day.”

These stories make more than a persona. They make a man. All of which is to say I was mistaken: Jack Layton was not an archetypal politician. He was more passionate, compassionate, shrewder, tougher and smarter than most. But – such is the curse of familiarity – years of accumulated evidence brought me to that conclusion with a thud only when I read of his death.

I'd taken it for granted that whether or not I believed he could realize it or applauded all the methods he used attempting to achieve it, Jack Layton would always be there, articulating, more often than not, my vision of what it meant to be just and Canadian.

 

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