Inside Politics

The NDP without Jack

As the NDP moves on -- with their caucus meeting in Quebec City and the beginning of a leadership race -- it's still not clear to them or anyone else what, exactly, Jack Layton represented to Canadians, and why his death resulted in an outpouring in Canada so emotional that it may have exceeded the reaction to Pierre Trudeau's passing.

Brian Topp, the first leadership entrant, reminded everyone, "No-one can claim Jack's mantle." To say the least.

First, there was Layton's extraordinary election achievement, how he vanquished the separatist party, putting paid to the experts who said that since the Bloc could always be counted on to win 50 or so seats in Quebec, the odds were slim that any party could ever get a majority. That was the political landscape, then. Layton changed it, surprising perhaps even himself.

How did he do it? Not by appealing to nationalists in Quebec, says Michael Behiels, political scientist at the University of Ottawa. Behiels says the NDP may not have realized that "the old question in Quebec about whether to separate, is off the table." Instead, he says, "Layton was the vehicle though which people in Quebec were expressing their discontent. The Quebecois are now thinking their way though how to create a modern Quebec soceity, how to create jobs for Francophones, how to get new immigrants, whom they select, to stay in the province. "

Robert Asselin, also at Ottawa U, says sovereignty isn't quite dead; he sees it among students on campuses, but notes young people are more "culturally secure than their parents." Yes, it's true that Layton campaigned on some of "the old arguments:" promising to install a French-first policy in all federal institutions in Quebec, championing a 50 + 1 vote to carry a referendum on separation. But the winning factor, says Asselin, is that "he was perceived as likeable, fair and left-wing."

The breakthough in Quebec, along with becoming one of the largest opposition parties in Canadian history, would have been Layton's legacy, extraordinary enough, but then his death stirred up powerful currents, some so unspoken that they reside below the surface of everyday awareness.

"Frankly, there was his illness," says Asselin. "People vote with emotional frames in their minds." The huge orange wave that began mid-campaign was attributed to Layton's debate performance, but Asselin doesn't see it that way. "Layton wasn't that amazing in the debate. If you took out the factor of his (health), would Quebecois and others have voted the same way?"

Michael Adams, author and president of Environics, says, "We're all afraid of the Big C, especially aging boomers. We're going to funerals, seeing friends with it, people we know. To see Jack, so full of 'piss and vinegar'... he became like a rock star that died too young."

Michael Behiels says "what Layton did (campaigning in the election) probably shortened his life, and people sensed that. It was just like Lucien Bouchard after flesh-eating disease took his leg, and then he went on, not quitting, with his one good leg and a prosthesis. The message: that's how much he cared. The same with Layton."

Adams thinks that Layton represented an era of idealism in this age of "we're doing OK," self-satisfied pragmatism. "The event aggregated all the angst of the liberal left. We want to be better but we've settled for stability." And Adams goes further. Layton represented the "feminization" of the country that's being going on for 50 years, going in the direction of tolerance and empathy, the latest beneficiaries being gays and lesbians, an important constituency of Layton's.

In Adams' view, Layton was a backlash to the traditional male pluralism that Stephen Harper has re-introduced.

It may be that the NDP will be defined for some time as the party that no longer has Jack. Perhaps, like the Liberals -- and before them, until 2004, the Conservatives -- the transformational leader won't show up any time soon.

Whatever happens, there's a void in the country now, a space to be occupied. And there's room for others, not just the NDP, to occupy it.

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