I'm not big on funerals, or any of the rituals of death that our society has built up over the years. Odd, then, that I found myself closely watching the funeral of Jack Layton, the recently deceased leader of the NDP (and leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition … do not like that term, but that's the reality for the moment). I'm glad I watched something that turned out to be both personal and political, moving and mobilizing. And I wonder how much of this has gone over the heads of many in this country.
Let's go back to that scary press conference where Mr. Layton announced that he was stepping down temporarily to deal with a second cancer. We were all frightened by the dramatic change in his appearance and the sound of his voice as he calmly made his recommendations (not final decisions, but recommendations) about what the party should do in the interim. Here's where the disconnect started to manifest itself, as media pundits predicted a terrible infight for power inside the NDP because he had recommended someone who had just been elected over his two deputy leaders for the interim role. And that fighting didn't happen, as it might have in one of the "traditional" parties. The process set out in the party rules was played out, a decision was made and the party members rallied to it.
Then our highly motivated press "dug up" the information that Nycole Turmel had been a member of the Bloc québécois and was a current member of Québec solidaire! Scandal! Those two parties both having Québec sovereignty in their platforms, how could she now assume the post of interim leader of the opposition? Did we all forget that Gilles Duceppe, as leader of the Bloc québécois, was the leader of the opposition in the past? Do we all expect all federal politicians from Québec to emerge from the provincial Liberal Party (because everyone else, progressive and not, has some connection with the sovereignty movement)? I was almost as offended by Ms. Turmel's defenders, who told us we should all be happy that she came back from the "dark side" to join a federalist party.
When Jack Layton died and his family released his letter to Canadians, I found myself very moved by a real expression of positivity that has really not characterized politics in Canada in the recent past. The Tories seem to be taking us down a path that looks very American, airing attack ads against the Liberal Party's last leaders to undermine them outside of the election periods, and the NDP under Jack Layton really didn't go that way, even under fire from the others. The message is positive, it is mobilizing, it is not centred on a person, but on a movement. (I was critical of the leader focus of all the campaigns in the course of the last election here.)
I worried with friends that the lead-up to the funeral was suggesting that the right was trying to bury the NDP with Jack Layton, to portray him as a person separate from his party and from his political convictions, worthy of remembering and celebrating, but not really worthy of following. You could see that in some of the choices of individuals being interviewed for their "person in the street" reactions: "I never voted for him or his party, but I always liked him." If you can look past an image, you will see that it would be impossible to separate the person from his politics. It is precisely his appreciation of people and their issues and differing realities that made him easy to talk to and likeable.
I was very moved by the chalk messages written seemingly all over Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, where he was a city councillor for 20 years before making the leap to federal politics. Moving and personal messages about the impact of a man in a political movement, written in environmentally friendly chalk which washes away in the rain.
After all the efforts to exceptionalize and personalize his impact, I was very pleasantly surprised that his funeral itself was also very political. Not just the eulogy by Stephen Lewis, but all of it. Married gay pastor of a very LGBT-identified church, music reflecting a breadth of appreciation of the arts, including some political messages. I couldn't help thinking that some of the Conservative and Liberal frontbenchers in the room must have been a bit uncomfortable with some of the content. That made me smile (how mean-spirited of me!).
And now it all becomes about moving forward, because the movement survives its members. And we will see, too, how much Mr. Layton's leadership was about sharing the power and not hoarding it to himself: if that was the case (as we all hope and want to believe), then the NDP will continue to be in the good hands it has been in, minus one pair of good hands that gave it a big boost on the way out.
That was very well done and a fitting tribute to a man for whom — like many on the left — the personal is political.