Jack Layton — political leader, co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, and a man with the greatest of hearts — died this morning. He was only 61.
For my readers outside of Canada, his name is known to a few of you as the co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign. For those of us here in Canada, his death is a terrible loss for his was a major voice of compassion, fairness, and change in national politics: so much so that in elections only months ago, he propelled his tiny social democratic party into the second largest standing in our House of Commons and formed the Official Opposition to the Conservative government.
Jack seemed larger than life and, in that, it is particularly hard to imagine he is no longer alive. He carried with him energy and optimism that knew few bounds.
The public discussion is, of course, about his public life: his contributions as an organizer, environmentalist, fighter for social justice, and a municipal and national politician.
But I want to tell you the type of man he was for his public ideals were the way he lived his life.
He seldom stopped moving. I don’t mean in a fidgety A.D.D. way; not at all. He certainly would stop to share a drink, enjoy a meal together, or pick up his guitar and sing. For a man who wanted to get things done and who had such a forceful personality, he also had a tremendous patient streak: willing to listen, willing to let things take their course. No, what I mean is that he was tireless.
Let me tell you three little stories about his values, his sense of commitment, his roll-up-his sleeves approach to life, and what mattered most.
Back in the early 1990s, a year or so after we had started White Ribbon, the organization was in debt which would make it impossible to pursue our plans for an outreach campaign to urge men to end our silence on violence against women. So, as if it were the simplest, most inconsequential thing to do, he suggested we put up his house and my car as collateral for a loan. (This story also shows he had met his match in Olivia Chow, the great love of his life, for, of course, he had checked with her first.)
And, then, if I may share another personal story, in 2001 when Betty and I got married, he and Olivia volunteered to put together some flowers. This was out in the country and they showed up the evening before with great bunches of flowers and vases and proceeded to stay up until three in the morning cutting and arranging, he, I expect, working under Olivia’s direction. He was a man who rolled up his sleeves because it made a difference to the people (and the country)he loved.
For all he is being remembered as a political leader, let me end with a story about what really mattered most to him. When I saw him last week for the last time, he was very tired, very sick. He talked through his fatigue with optimism but also realism. But let me tell you when his astonishing life force was suddenly there to be seen: We spoke briefly about children and, in his case, his first grandchild. A luminous smile transformed his face. And there it was to behold: the Jack I had known and loved with the fire of great love once again in his eyes.