Jack Layton’s life and untimely death fundamentally changed Canadian political discourse. But both the public outpouring and its hyperpartisan response speak to another interesting shift in Canadian politics.
Hints of this shift appeared after the last federal election when the young, newly-elected NDP MPs were the sudden recipients of a whole lot of what can only be described as vitriol. True, the bulk of the venomous diatribe was levied against Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, much of it vehemently sexist. But there was also a common thread of anti-youth sentiment—ironic, given how frequently youth are accused of apathy, and lack of political engagement. So when a number of young people, clearly politically active although admittedly surprised at the election result, were eager to assume their new responsibilities and represent the people who had elected them, they were mocked by a number of those who had voted for...let’s just say a party that doesn’t have much of a youth following.
Youth are told they can change the world—they just have to get involved and “follow their dreams.” But not too far…once every four years to the ballot box is just about right. Then they can go back to drinking Red Bull or listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or doing whatever kids these days do. These upstarts think they can actually represent voters? The gall! Certain posters on message boards were alternatively foaming at the mouth at their audacity or could barely contain their glee at having “fresh meat” to torment.
This response—ageist, at the very least—was magnified when, during the 2011 June Throne Speech, Brigette Depape calmly walked to the middle of the Senate floor, held up a “Stop Harper” sign, and was escorted from the building and fired. But not before the image of a young woman dressed in the Senate page uniform brandishing a red stop sign in the middle of a chamber steeped in Canadian political history became a new political symbol and rallying point. Visually the image was striking; politically it was dynamite.
A media and blogosphere frenzy ensued. Brigette was “disrespectful” (although her protest was silent and calm--involving, you know, holding up a sign for people to read). Brigette was “misinformed” (although in subsequent media interviews she demonstrated remarkable thoughtfulness and political awareness). Brigette was “an attention seeker,” “a petulant brat” who needed to be “taught a lesson”. Conservative bloggers and message board minions were apoplectic.
But if Brigette’s protest meant so little; if Stephen Harper’s majority really proves that resistance is futile; if the kids (including the new NDP MPs) are simply misinformed and need to have their “socialist ideals” shaken out of them, why such foaming at the mouth? Wouldn’t laughter and “kids these days” be the logical response rather than rage?
Here’s the thing; I think the rage comes from a place of fear. I think the Conservative bunker mentality requires their constant vigilance to squash anything that vaguely resembles a differing point of view, or even a reminder that although the election is over, the opposition is not going away. Because when that opposition is coherent, passionate, and persuasive, and is accompanied by action…that’s when things get scary. Particularly when those unpredictable youth are involved.
And when political awareness and action is an ongoing process rather than the equivalent of something that resembles a cross between Groundhog Day and Leap Year (you know, when Canadians crawl out of their houses once every four years, haul themselves down to the polls to do their civic duty, then return home to shake their collective heads about how the old boss looks an awful lot like the new boss…but hey, whatareyagonnado?); when those whose sense of order relies on low voter turnout and an uninformed electorate realize that, for a lot of people, democracy is a way of life and not just a spectator sport….then it’s time to panic.
And then there was the public response to the passing of Jack Layton. While still trying to get a handle on the depth of my own sorrow I’m marveling at the way Jack clearly connected with so many people. And how his letter—beautifully crafted and stunningly sincere—instantly became a rallying point, even for many who hadn’t voted NDP.
I think his letter allowed people to see themselves through Jack’s eyes. And what he saw was people at their best; how people want to be thought of. Generous. Fair. Empathetic.
What he described was Canada at its best—the Canada that so many of us want to live in; the way we want Canada to be thought of at home and abroad. A country that doesn’t leave its most marginalized behind; that shares its tremendous wealth; that recognizes its strengths but also where we need to work much harder to address the wrongs that continue to exist and that many of us continue to benefit from; that understands we must judge ourselves by how we treat our most vulnerable; that realizes we all have valuable contributions to make in order for all of us to reach our potential.
I’m not saying we’re anywhere close to that vision—Jack wasn’t saying that either—and there are many, many people who recognize and take part in the enormous amount of work that needs to be done. But I think the public response to the letter indicates that many people overcome with grief also want to do their share in trying to make that “best version” of Canada a reality.
That vision as he articulated it was powerful; it resonated because it felt authentic, and because it was expressed authentically. His closing sentence has already become a mantra because it speaks to a vision of Canada, a way of life, and a set of priorities that people see in their best selves. Within hours, love, hope and optimism blew the “Conservative Values are Canadian Values” ad campaign out of the political and social water.
That, I think, is what's behind the hyperpartisan response on message boards, in the occasional opinion piece, and in the infamous Dave Naylor tweet, the Christie Blatchford column (and Jonathon Kay’s “Christie is Awesome!” response), and Ezra Levant’s orange-wigged toast to National Necrophilia Week.
I think the new NDP MPs and Brigette and the public’s response to Jack’s death scare the crap out of them because these events—in varying degrees—demonstrate that the opposition is much bigger than any one political party. They are reminders that the public is willing to use its agency and awareness in unpredictable ways to get involved in and change the political process.
“We have to get creative,” said Brigette, when asked about the “appropriateness” of her action. But creativity can be scary to people whose world view depends on taking predictable things like low voter turnout and apathetic youth as givens. Think of the chaos that might ensue when a young page, on whom Senators depended for timely delivery of communication and glasses of water, becomes a reminder that (gasp!) even the help might be reading Chomsky.
The public mourning of Jack’s death was marked with spontaneity and creativity as well—a living mural at Nathan Phillips Square; a 21 bike bell ring salute; gifts of Orange Crush and Play-Do; mustache imagery; music and applause. But the personal messages were also remarkable: “the people’s prime minister”, Jack Layton is the reason I voted”, “you made politics exciting”.
Words to strike fear into the hearts of those who like their politics predictable, their youth apathetic, and their worldview uncomplicated by all this “making a difference” or “democracy is a way of life” nonsense. And I think being confronted with a different set of political and social principles that resonates deeply and authentically among a variety of communities only feeds the fear that drives the fury.
In the wake of the hateful comments and the adolescent ranting, we need to focus on what they’re in response to: a deep-rooted fear that the Conservative lock on Canadian political consciousness is not as unbreakable as they might like to think.
We’ve had a few reminders since the election about what we’re capable of, and how vigilant we must be to maintain and enhance that collective vision of a fairer, more inclusive way of living. And when one of those people just died after spending his life working for this vision and was mourned by millions, many others came forward declaring their intent to carry on this work.
The opposition didn’t lose its leader or its way: it just got a whole lot bigger and more determined.