It was early last Monday morning my son announced he just heard that Jack Layton, NDP Leader and Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, had died of the cancer he had contracted in July 2011. We we filled with hope that he would be back fighting in spirit in Parliament on September 19, 2011, when Parliament resumes.
I watched the State Funeral he was given yesterday. One of the songs, Hallelejah, by Leonard Cohen, was one of the songs that was played to him apparently in his final days. At his funeral, Steven Page, former front man for the Barenaked Ladies sung it at the Roy Thompson Hall, with grace as members of the audience on both the inside and outside had tears in their eyes. The other one was with the original singer, Lorraine Legato, of Parachute Club fame, singing Rise Up. Reverend Brent Hawkes talked about his Sunday sermons, he would check the balcony above and he would find Jack and Olivia in attendance.
To me, Jack Layton was a big part of how Toronto became the wonderful place I find it to be today. I am so fearful that the recent election of Rob Ford is going to destroy that community. Jack Layton stood up for inclusive communities, and for a long time, Toronto tried to be an inclusive community. I always envied those who lived there for their lives, and today they are interwoven in the Toronto legal, social, urban and political landscape, while I, as an outsider can only come when I take part in something province wide.
But, I want to tell you about Jack Layton. I have met him numerous times, many times as a young person when I was all NDP-idealistic and even presided the riding association at one point. I belonged to a group called ACT for Disarmament, which was a fight against the cold war, something both my husband and I recall as being big in the 1970's and 1980's. We would have marches here by the federal MP's office at one time when the Landmark Building was actually a federal building. We would travel to Toronto, and join the larger peace movement there, led by Toronto's ACT for Disarmament.
Jack Layton would be involved. I remember his face, simply by looking at what he looked like in the 1980's. He would sometimes speak, and make various venues available to us. I loved Toronto then, as it was so much bigger and more powerful and it was branching out to Niagara in those early days with our rag tag group, which still seemed to attract hundreds to our own local demonstrations and Hiroshima and Nagasaki awareness days in the park. I remember listening to the music in my ear, especially of We Built This City by Jefferson Starship. Ben and I were young then, both of us in college during that age, and even afterwards.
You see, Niagara was not always the drab, conservative, do-nothing, bend-over-and-let-me-let-you-screw-me type of community like it can be now. There were at least fourteen activist organizations that had my name on them somewhere. At the same time, I fought major battles before I was trained in the law. One was being denied access to university funding and education, and the other was an action I had to take against the very old fashioned CMHA at the time for their decision to expell me because of my politics at the time. I organized the clients of the agency to teach them demand better, and ask for jobs there, or to become volunteers so we can run our own programs to some extent. Apparently, a substantial petition was taken to force them to take me back, as well as a legal action, which attracted Ontario Division and United Way to the table, a nightmare I was not going to allow to stop until they stopped excluding me. I ended up joining the Board after I came back and served there for many years, and was eventually awarded a lifetime membership.
There was also the Unemployed Action Alliance. I pass the old Grantham Township Building in St. Catharines everyday. This was 145 King Street, where a drop-in centre, advocacy and support services were provided for the city's unemployed. We held the clout to bring the Mayor and city council to the table and make demands for things like reduced bus fare, and free activities like a large picnic for the unemployed, where I eventually met my husband (who was volunteering for the event). We would also demonstrate, do protests, as well as enjoy Christmas dinners at behest of the local labour leaders. We responded to the rhetoric of the day about those of us that were unemployed, that said we were lazy, did not want to work, and resisted a version of workfare that being introduced at the time.
I was in college then, first taking my legal clerkship and then later fighting throught the Ombudsman and the MPP office for my OSAP. I was a force to be reckoned with, as I was not happy to let people tell me I cannot do this, or cannot do that. I lived on my own since I was a teenager, and always trying to adjust to the rules that either enabled me, or confined me in many respects. Somebody I met in Toronto told me to talk to Mel Swart, then an MPP for the NDP representing Welland. They told me I was not capable of going to university, and further, OSAP would not qualify me, so I fought. I still have the letters I wrote, until the NDP took me up as a case in the legislature, and because I received very little support from my parents (even for signing a damned form!), I had to do things the hard way ... I still remember Mel phoning me to tell me that the Minister approved my application for OSAP by order-in-council, and I could get information for this from the finance department at the university, which I did.
While all this might not seem to be about Jack Layton, he was in my life throughout this whole period of time. I was in the NDP. I would attend provincial and federal conferences, as well as attend meetings where NDP leaders would come down to do a meet and greet. Jack Layton sat at my table at a couple of these conferences. He encouraged me to apply for co-operative housing, which I did. I remember Jack standing up and stating why the government had so much against co-ops ... because the people in them were politically aware and can push for change.
It was a few years later that Jack Layton was attacked by the Toronto Sun because he and his wife, Olivia Chow, were living in a downtown housing co-operative and at the time, collectively were bringing in over $100,000 a year. This was all based on the public's ignorance of the philosophy of co-operative housing. While co-operative housing IS a form of social housing, it is not necessarily a "low income housing". It is part of the co-op mantra to include people from all backgrounds, all incomes, all races, all religions, etc. to live in an intentional community. If it were so wrong for Jack and Olivia to live in their co-op at the time, why didn't mine evict my family when I used to make approximately $85,000 a year on my own? You just don't get your rent subsidized when you earn good money, but you are not excluded.
These were the days when the latter half of the baby boomers were beginning to speak out, and the earlier baby boomers supported us. There was a large movement to develop cooperative housing in the Niagara Region during the 1980's and early 1990s from what I remember. That is why there are a considerable number of these projects in the region today, even though much of what we did back then has become depoliticized and individualized by those that didn't want the change.
I began to go to Toronto a lot in the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. On many of these occasions, we would meet in places where the political movers and shakers of Toronto met, and we would interact. In the early 1990's, I was given a special invite to Niagara-on-the-Lake's Queen's Landing, where then Premier Bob Rae and his Cabinet were having a meeting, and we not only were able to stay for the public part of it, we were able to socialize with them afterwards. I remember speaking to Frances Lankin at the time, then made Minister of Economic Development and Trade. There was a similar meet and greet in Toronto, where Jack Layton was also present among the invitees, and at that time I shared a table with Premier Bob Rae, and his wife Arlene Perly Rae.
I was just getting out of school in Toronto, and supporting myself through a variety of consulting contracts, both for the federal and provincial government ministries, as well as for private non-profit organizations. After my 10 1/2 year adventure in university was over, I had no job waiting for me. I continued to be a consultant until I became an executive director of the local Niagara Mental Health Survivors Network, a job I held for three years which allowed me to see both sides of an issue, changing my politics considerably. I still have downstairs all the copies of the Niagara Survivor's Journal we ever published through that organization. Later, I accepted similar jobs at the provincial and federal level, until I was exhausted. Upon returning to my roots, I started up private practice again and eventually situated my office next to Start Me Up Niagara, an organization which was formed and funded through one of the jobs that I held over the years.
When I read Jack Layton's history, he did not have a work history like "everybody else's" either. Neither did I. There were no organizations begging for my services (apart from my expertise as a consultant or now as legal representative). I found that the timing of my job search hit every major recession in my career path, leaving employers with no openings for new people, just those who have already been laid off. At one point, I did bluntly ask how I could make myself into somebody that has already been laid off there so I can have a chance at a job. Experiences like this led to some of my more centrist positions on issues. But, regardless of what stage of my life, Toronto was always there for me.
It could be for the peace movement, the NDP, contacting various legislators to get issues pushed, conferences, and even some of my schooling. Eventually I worked on contracts in Toronto, and this has always given me a positive feeling about Toronto. To me, Jack Layton and his wife, Olivia Chow, were very much a part of moving Toronto into a progressive metropolis. Over time, I used Toronto as a way to be surrounded by progress, even in the law, as I once went around taking pictures of the Ontario Court of Appeal, the Law Society, the University Avenue Courthouse, the Human Rights Tribunal, etc. This was the location where the power sources were, and how they generated themselves out to the broader province of Ontario. I would attend conferences, accept various appointments, and do other work in Toronto, simply to get away from Niagara, which since about 1998, has become a very apolitical and hostile environment in which to live. The last anti-poverty conference was held in the mid 1990's, and was organized by me and my agency.
Today I have been so proud to see some people come out. Niagara has been dull for so long, and we have been so isolated. The political epicentre here is Start Me Up Niagara, and my legal office, it seems. There are scattered people in Welland, but they've never concerned themselves with the interests of others in the region, where our problems are just as bad. I have to unfortunately be politically neutral in my direct dealings with government agencies, as my legal office serves many interests. Being involved as a young person with the NDP, then spending some of my time working with the Progressive Conservatives in the 1990's gave me a good bird's eye view on how the inner political workings work, even though I am not interested in any political party now, although I will work with whoever wants to get the stuff done that I want to see done.
During the last federal election, I was torn. I liked both candidates for the Conservatives and for the NDP, but I liked Jack Layton better than Stephen Harper. On May 2, 2011, Jack Layton made an excellent victory and concession speech to a very large crowd of cheerful supporters, and Stephen Harper glowed in his victory in finally achieving a majority government. In a way, Canadians all got they wanted. We got rid of separatism in Quebec with an orange sweep over Quebec, and the NDP won an unprecedented number of seats, placing him and Olivia in Stornaway, an honour never given to an NDP member of Parliament in all of history. Conservative supporters also got the majority they long sought after.
During the election campaign, I was very impressed with the NDP ads. They were not mean and vicious against other parties and other leaders; they were cheerful, optimistic and powerful. When he spoke on election night, he was so optimistic, and I bet every Canadian across the land except for those whose heads were deeply in the sand did want to see a Canada for all Canadians "where nobody gets left behind". Various election ads, such one about small businesses, health care, and leadership. Many of these commercials during the election ended with Layton speaking to a large audience saying, "We won't stop until we get the job done!".
And then last Monday comes along. Jack Layton is not coming back. He died at 4:45 a.m. last Monday, just after a meeting I was part of at Montebello Park planning an anti-poverty response to the provincial election. It is like I lost a major limb, or a large part of my heart was cut out ... it is more than a "now what?". Is this the end of an era? I hope not. Canada has become too lean and mean lately. While I resented a lot of the political correctness, union issues etc., during the Bob Rae era, I wanted so badly to see a progressive movement like one led by Layton that did not push these issues that turned too many off the NDP.
My family watched the State Funeral on Saturday. It was Stephen Harper that approached now widow, Olivia Chow, to offer it. The procession was wonderful, a celebration of his life, and how the people of Toronto gathered in the thousands and thousand on sight and mourned and others of us mourned across the nation ... not a dry eye in this land. But what do we make of this? Jack Layton wrote a final letter to Canadians from his death bed, which I was not able to read in its entirety. There is too much of me in it, too much of my time in Toronto in it, and too much of dawning realities in it ... a mother-in-law with possible cancer in the liver, a friend of mine just diagnosed with another type of cancer, and how Layton - a hero in the minds of so many Canadians - just was felled by the same thing.
The Letter to Canadians is inspiring me to act, to act against cancer, to act against the destructive influences of the ridiculous right, to find a way to unite Canadians, to find a way to help us find ways to love one another, to help one another, and to teach one another, and how to empower one another. A text version of the letter is available here
In closing, the final words resonated with all Canadians: 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,