Canada Overreacts to Jack Layton's Death


I pulled up my Twitter and Facebook pages last Monday morning to find news of the death of one of Canada’s most well-known politicians. Jack Layton, a 30-year veteran of community organizing, member of parliament representing Toronto, and the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP), had succumbed to an aggressive form of prostate cancer. He was a strong voice for left-wing Canada, fighting for causes ranging from rights for people suffering with HIV/AIDS and women's reproductive rights to legislation allowing conscientious objectors to the Iraq war to remain in Canada. Layton fought off his first bout of cancer earlier this year before leading the NDP through the most successful federal election campaign in decades. The election marked the first time the NDP formed the Official Opposition at the national level; it was a major victory for Layton. But his cancer returned and last week he died, causing an overwhelming public emotional reaction.

As a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., and after living in Canada for a few years, I will admit that I never voted for the NDP at the federal level. And while I support the causes for which Layton was a vocal activist, I was never a supporter of Layton as a politician. I was, however, strangely affected by his death, as were a number of my friends — some, but not all of whom, are federal NDP supporters. I believe, however, that his death would not have caused such a reaction had it happened last year at this time or even a year from now. The reaction was the product of a jolt following an emotionally charged federal election victory, which begs the question: Is the politics of mourning a politician ever anything more than just politics?

In this case, the outpouring of emotion, while seemingly genuine, is doing an excellent job of skyrocketing NDP ratings and reminding Canadians of Layton’s liberal victories.

Just two days before his death, Layton wrote a banal but touching letter instructing Canadians to be hopeful and optimistic about politics and the future of Canada, which he instructed his wife to release in the event of his death. The letter was published hours after the announcement of his passing and was soon posted on every Facebook page and news blog. It was hailed as a powerful and beautiful last message (one letter to the editor in Toronto’s weekly NOW Magazine compared it to Tennyson’s Ulysses).The emotional outpouring began that morning with simple Twitter and Facebook messages, but by the end of the day, the movement had erupted. Nathan Phillips Square, the public space in front of Toronto City Hall, was quickly covered in messages written out in chalk, and a memorial of flowers and pictures of Layton appeared at the base of the building. Newspapers and magazines across Canada donned headlines such as, “The Country Grieves a Hero," “Reaction to Jack Layton’s death: ‘Canadian hearts are breaking’," “Timeline of a Political Genius," and “There’s a little bit of Jack Layton in all of us."

The following day, an editorial written by controversial columnist Christie Blatchford criticized the outpouring and the now famous letter. The article was immediately pegged as blasphemous and Blatchford was berated by fellow members of the media, politicians, and in letters-to-the-editor of newspapers and magazines across the country. The state funerals, held in Ottawa on Friday and in Toronto on Saturday, attracted crowds from across the province, some lining up for hours to catch a view of the casket or the big screen on which the service was being shown. I visited Nathan Phillips Square later in the week and saw strangers crying at his makeshift memorial. This response is reminiscent of only one event in my memory: the death of Princess Diana. 

It is difficult to believe that this disproportionate response is much more than politics at play. Canada and Toronto currently have the most conservative prime minister and mayor in history. The federal Liberal party all but crumbled in the last federal election. This reaction to Layton’s death represents an outcry from the left, an attempt to show that they will not be forgotten by the Conservatives. Because after all, where were these same people in previous elections? Their ability to mobilize to mourn his death is obviously better than their ability to mobilize to get out the vote.

Layton’s death is indeed sad but the response to his death needs to be dialed down to make it feel more genuine and less like a political ploy. Meanwhile, as Canada dwells on this event, Layton is being elevated to saintly status. Although perhaps he would have enjoyed this pomp and circumstance, it is, after all, a brilliant political tactic to keep his party and reminders of his left-wing accomplishment in the news. 

Photo Credit: salty soul