Thursday, 15 September 2011

Aside #2: Memories of Jack Layton

September 14, 2011:  Jack Layton Tribute

I made my first batch of Zucchini Fritters on a Saturday afternoon while watching the funeral service for Jack Layton, the leader of the New Democratic Party here in Canada.  His death was both unexpected and expected. 

Unexpected because Mr. Layton had survived a battle with prostate cancer, then hip surgery, and limped his way through the gruelling spring 2011 federal election campaign and swept the NDP to the top of the polls and into power at the helm of the Opposition to take on the majority Conservative Party.  He and his wife, also a Member of Parliament, were to spend the summer of 2011 moving into the Opposition Leader's official residence, known as Stornaway. 

He seemed invincible.  He was a large presence in Ottawa and Toronto -- famous for his bike riding, his outspoken views on social democratic issues, a staunch supporter of municipalities, among other issues. 

It was in the context of municipalities that I got to know him a bit.  Late in the 1990s, he was head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and I was working at Environment Canada, heading up the Climate Change Secretariat (outreach and communications) on Canada's response to the international treaty on climate change that had been signed in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 (I was there!!). 

Following Kyoto, the Government set up a special Climate Change Task Force Secretariat to coordinate a whole-of-government response to the issue.  The Secretariat decided to engage key stakeholders who would be key in helping to implement any Canadian action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions -- so of course the FCM was a key player.  

I participated in many discussions on way government could assist municipalities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (promotion of solar, bicycle lanes, 2+ occupancy lanes etc).  As head of the FCM, Mr. Layton was always at the forefront of these discussions.  He had a commanding, confident presence, knew exactly what he would be saying on behalf of his Federation, able to put it in context, and very clear in terms of the positions he put forward. You just knew he was destined for leadership on a bigger scale.

And he did -- going on to win the leadership of the New Democratic Party and bring them from 3rd or 4th in the polls to second place, and also included with a sizeable contingent of new NDP Members of Parliament from Quebec as well!  It was one of the more astounding outcomes of this year's election.  I, like the pollsters, saw it happening but not to the scale and degree that it did on election night.  

So, imagine my shock -- and a nation's as well -- when Mr. Layton urgently called a news conference at the end of July 2011 -- just a few months after his stunning upset in the election.  As he walked into the press room, you could hear the collective intake of breath from the journalists, echoed by my husband and I in our living room, and undoubtedly by those watching across the nation. 

Dead man walking.  Honestly, his appearance was that dramatic.  Frail, skeletal even, his voice was weak and raspy as he announced he was stepping down (temporarily, he said confidently) from his duties as Leader of the NDP to fight a new cancer that had just been diagnosed.  He vowed he would be back in September 2011 to take on the government but for now he was handing over the reins of the NDP to another NDP MP. 

We knew ... we all knew he was terminal.  For days after that press conference, journalists and commentators danced around the issue.  Canadian media are generally more polite than media in countries such as the US and Britain and they struggled not to say bluntly the obvious truth -- that he was dying.  Canadian media tend to respect an individual's right to battle serious illness privately.  I'm sure some reporters knew what 'new' cancer had emerged (Mr. Layton declined to say not wanting to cause anyone with the same cancer to lose hope) and to date I have seen absolutely no mention of what it was. 

Notwithstanding what our eyes told us, we expected Jack Layton to fight hard against this new cancer.  He did but the fight was over in a month.  Shockingly (but not really so), early in the morning of Monday, August 22, 2011, my blackberry chimed its 'Breaking News' alert to say simply that he had died overnight. 

His death set off a week of public viewing on Parliament Hill and in Toronto and mourning everywhere, with the Prime Minister offering his family a state funeral, which they accepted. 

So that's how I ended up on a Saturday afternoon in my kitchen, watching the memorial service on television, with me crying at the tributes, all the while making zucchini fritters to freeze from a Smitten Kitchen recipe.  Such is life ... 

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