A lot of really thoughtful, poignant things have been written about Jack Layton since the news of his death on Monday morning. I won't try to match them. But a few personal memories have sprung to mind, and for what they're worth I'm going to share them.
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Apologies if I've told you before about the time Layton and I were mistaken for being on a date; it's kind of been a go-to anecdote for the better part of a decade.
Very early in his leadership of the NDP, he and I went for dinner at a cafe on Baldwin Street, near his Toronto home. It was a cozy (and busy) little place that he'd suggested, and we wound up sitting rather close together at a corner table.
Jack was nothing if not gregarious, which made it somewhat unlike most dinners I've had with politicians. He ordered some appetizers for us to share almost as soon as we sat down, and shortly thereafter a bottle of wine. There followed, along with our meals, a good deal of animated conversation, in which he was fairly bursting with ideas for how the country should be run differently.
Eventually, when the time came to pay, there was a bit of a kerfuffle. The restaurant didn't take my brand of credit card, so I tried to duck next door to a cash machine, but he insisted on putting his card down. I finally relented, with the vow that I'd pay next time – at which point the waitress, who'd been waiting patiently through all this, offered that at least this meant we'd have to have another date.
I'd like to think that, if either of us were gay, we might have dated someone more age appropriate. Still, I can see how the waitress – who I'm pretty sure had no idea who he was – made the assumption.
Along with his considerable joie de vivre, Jack had an unusually unguarded manner of communicating with people. Not that he wasn't very careful, especially later in his career, to stay on script. But no doubt, he had fully turned on his considerable charm that night, and I'm sure we didn't look much like a politician and a journalist out for a working dinner.
I'd be lying, too, if I said that I wasn't charmed. Not in the way the waitress thought, mind you. But there are certain politicians who make you feel really privileged to spend an hour or two in their company. I can't think of many who did that better than him.
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After his first year as NDP leader, in a piece that was mostly complimentary toward Layton, I noted that my grandfather couldn't stand him. It was a way of acknowledging that he rubbed some people the wrong way, and I didn't think too much of it.
The next day, I got a call from Layton's office. He had read the piece, and wanted to know if he might be able to visit my grandfather, sit down with him and try to change his mind.
For a variety of reasons, I felt compelled to turn the invitation down. And I don't want to seem naïve, here – it obviously would have been a bit of a stunt, aimed at getting me to write a follow-up piece that made Layton look really good.
Still, I'm hard-pressed to think of many other politicians who would have made that offer. It required complete confidence in his ability to go into an unfamiliar, potentially hostile situation, in which he might have been told off in front of a journalist – almost exactly the sort of thing most leaders spend their campaigns trying to avoid. (As it happens, my grandfather couldn't be more gentlemanly, but Layton and his staff didn't know that.)
To the extent that it was indeed a stunt, I'm not sure that reflects badly either. Here was someone who took over a party that had basically been irrelevant for three straight elections. Almost from the moment he did so, the NDP became impossible to ignore. And particularly in the early days, a big part of that was his willingness to do what it took to get noticed.
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A couple of times during this year's federal campaign – once early on, and once on election night – I took cabs to Layton events in Toronto. Both rides, in retrospect, were enlightening.
The drivers in each case were recent immigrants. These were guys working long, thankless hours, and they came from places where politicians are viewed with strong suspicion. But as soon as they found out where I was going, there was all kinds of enthusiasm – both of them, if I recall correctly, referring to Layton as “my guy.”
I don't mean to overplay this; it was rather a small sample size. But it was perhaps relevant in light of the NDP's breakthroughs in places like Scarborough–Rouge River, a largely working-class riding in which the vast majority of voters belong to visible minorities.
Much has been made of the federal Conservatives' breakthroughs with immigrant communities, and rightly so. But the NDP's success on that front, after failing to capture the attention of generations of new Canadians, has gotten much less attention.
From my experience in those conversations – and what I've heard subsequently from people who worked the campaign on the ground – a good number of lower-income immigrants in particular felt like there was someone out there willing to stand up for them. If you're looking for evidence of his Everyman appeal, I don't know if it gets much stronger than that.
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A final memory takes me back to Toronto's Exhibition grounds in January of 2003, the day Layton was chosen NDP leader.
It was a first-ballot win, so lacked some of the tension of other leadership conventions. But I recall some sense of excitement, of possibility, as Layton (if memory serves) was hoisted onto his supporters shoulders.
I also remember stepping out into the hallway and calling a friend of mine – a guy who'd grown up in Toronto, now lived in the United States, but had always liked the NDP and Layton in particular. He was excited by the news, and in a different way – despite not having political affiliation or a rooting interest – I guess I was too.
Bear in mind that, around that point, Canadian politics was in a pretty dull period. The two parties on the right hadn't yet merged, and the Progressive Conservatives were still going through a thoroughly uninspiring leadership campaign. The NDP hadn't been competitive since the 1980s. The Bloc Québécois wasn't going anywhere. Most of the drama, such as it was, came from Paul Martin's imminent takeover of the Liberals – a development that, before the sponsorship scandal and everything else that went haywire, was supposed to cement that party's hold on power.
Layton had the potential, at least, to breathe a little life into the whole thing. He was a big gambit for the NDP, up against more established candidates like Bill Blaikie, and he was charismatic and unpredictable and different. There was just enough energy in that room, at the moment his victory was announced, to suggest that something might really be happening.
For rather a long time, it looked like that potential might never be fully realized. Under Layton, the NDP made impressive gains – doubling its share of the popular vote – and played a big role in ending the Liberals' dominance. But it seemed to have hit its ceiling, around 18 per cent national support and perpetual fourth-place status in the House of Commons, by the time this year's campaign rolled around.
Needless to say, that ceiling turned out to be a whole lot higher. In fact, we still don't know how high Jack could have gone, and we never will. But that moment back in '03 feels all the more historic now, knowing what it was the start of.