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JACK LAYTON, 1950-2011

Canadians lost their most trusted ally and representative with the sad passing of our Federal Opposition Leader, Jack Layton.  Jack was a leader, a mentor and someone I admired.  He was an advocate for Brant, dating back as far as his time as the head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and as recently as this past Federal Election, where he chose a family home in Brantford as the site of the first policy announcement in what would turn out to be a historic campaign.

Over the last week we’ve held a 3 day vigil for Jack in Brantford.  It has been amazing to see so many people come in and share their stories of Jack as they leave messages in a book of condolence for his loved ones.  Children have been writing on a stuffed bear we will present to his grand daughter Beatrice.  Jack beamed every time he mentioned her.  

Teens have been writing messages in chalk on the pavement outside our office as our all-volunteer crew have stayed for 12 hours a day to provide extended hours for the community to come in.

This morning I head to the state funeral for our leader being held in Toronto.  I wanted some time alone with my thoughts before the celebration of Jack’s life.  Before the hustle and bustle of what we all excpect to be a massive gathering – I wanted to reminisce.  I find myself at a keyboard.  It feels right to get these thoughts down.  I’ve read every tribute left to Jack in our book of condolence.  It feels right to pen my own.  

A small tribute to a man whose ability to inspire was was large:

I first met Jack in 2004 when I worked in the media.  My interview with him at that time was what began my journey as a New Democrat.  No small feat considering my previous votes for Liberal and Reform candidates.  But Jack won me over with his much talked about smile and personality, but also with his ideas and values. 

It was a student screening of Dr. Strangelove where afterwards he spoke about the de-weaponization of space. On that day in 2004, Jack stayed to have one-on-one time with the young people who had questions.  He also spent more time with the student journalists, not because he needed to, but because they needed more time to formulate the right questions then did their counterparts from CBC and CTV.  That patience and care would serve him (and New Democrats) well. 

I’d met many politicians, but he was the only one I’d seen at that point who insisted on carrying his own bags and staying late at events.  Years later as a candidate, I saw how Jack’s own low key and low maintenance demeanor behind the scenes, translated to other New Democrat MP’s who visited our riding, putting in long hours with the same eagerness and accessibility.

As a candidate, Jack wasn’t a stranger. He went above and beyond, offering personal training, advice, phone calls and e-mails. He was not a distant leader living in a far away tower and that was part of his appeal.  I often bump into people in Brantford, Brant County and Six Nations who knew him well and considered him a friend and an ally. 

He loved people and that love is now being reciprocated.

Jack – the happy warrior – was also a fighter.

In 2009 I was at a training session with Jack, and he had commented about a video he had seen weeks before from the Brant News of my then recent nomination meeting.  He made a comment about how packed the nomination meeting seemed.  When I told him that it was full despite an event with popular Liberal MP Justin Trudeau that was occurring in Brantford at the exact same time he winked at me, put his arm around me and said he’d work with me to “bring Brant back.”

He was a man of his word.  The next month, despite a diagnosis of prostate cancer that he had not yet gone public with, he held to his commitment and attended our 90 cent dinner event.  He stayed for two shifts; he spoke to everyone and took extra time with youth, seniors and particularily those who came to the event from other political parties and attempted to cajole him.  He told those people – they could have his time and have his ear.  Some of them are now active, card carrying New Democrats.  Winning people over by putting time in with a listening ear was another of Jack’s traits. 

Politicians can learn a lot from Jack’s willingness to engage with the “other side.”  To propose instead of simply oppose and to see anyone you engage with as an opportunity for change instead of something to avoid.

When he got to the event, he stood in line with everyone else.  When a volunteer asked him to skip to the front, he politely declined and instead asked that someone find me so I could join him in line.  I’ll never forget that.  It struck me as the core of the man.  Jack was someone who enjoyed being with people.

Again he came to Brant for our Pay What You Can Picnic.  When we had to reschedule the event due to the G20 debacle that had Toronto practically locked down, he was as accommodating as ever, offering exclusive interviews via phone to the local press.  No scripted questions and responses.  No vetting of reporters.  He’d talk about whatever they asked.

When we were able to have the event it was really wonderful.  Traffic was really bad coming in from Toronto and Jack was late.  I was doing interviews with reporters when my personal phone rang.  One of the reporters joked it “must be Jack.”

To my own astonishment that’s exactly who it was.

Jack called from the car to let me know how horrendous traffic had been.  He then asked if there were any seniors due to the heat or reporters due to scheduling conflicts that had to get going.  If there was, he wanted to make sure they didn’t leave disappointed and let me know he’d be happy to chat with them on the phone as he made his way to Brantford.  I passed the phone around and watched as people smiled and eagerly asked him questions.

Again, Jack’s love for people was apparent and at his core. 

That day was also special because it was the first time Jack and former Brant MP Derek Blackburn had met.  It was a privilege to sit in on that conversation as they both shared stories about Jack’s father whom Derek had served with in Parliament.

There are many other times that I hold close to my heart that I consider special moments: surprising him on stage at the Anti-UBB rally in Toronto where he and Peggy Nash insisted I speak despite being the only non-Toronto candidate there.  The time in Hamilton someone from his Toronto-Danforth riding was desperate to talk to him and Jack insisted on doing so despite it not being part of his very tight schedule.  Jack inviting me into that conversation because he valued the input of a social worker in the man’s situation.  Spending time with him at Provincial Council meetings behind closed doors.  His encouragement when we won the National Membership Challenge.  The amazing things he had to say to the national press about our local campaign when they asked him to defend a stop in Brantford over other “higher priority ridings.”   A very personal e-mail exchange we had about leadership and work ethic that I’ll cherish forever. It’s somthing that will inspire me to keep working on the positive changes he proposed.

The funny thing about Jack though, is that there are thousands of people across this country who can probably write similar stories of Jack being accessible, personal and helpful. At the Wednesday evening portion of the vigil with so many in attendence I asked “How many people here have actually met Jack.”  I was not surptised when the vast majority raised their hands.

It was at his core.  He loved people and he worked for them.

Now we show our love and we work towards his vision of a better country.  It’s a beautiful vision.

The day Jack died I said in the Expositor ‎”Today we grieve, but tomorrow we get to work on the country he dreamed of.”

The “tomorrow” I referred to is now today. A today where we get to the work of building.  A today where everyone steps up to achieve what he wanted.

With ideas, with inspiration and with the three pieces Jack advocated for right to the end: love, hope and optimism, I believe we’ll rise to the challenge of his final request.

Just like he asked us to, we’ll change the world.

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.  All my very best, – Jack Layton”

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