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The Commons: To believe

Aaron Wherry on Jack Layton’s final day on the campaign trail


 

Just after midnight, at something like 39,000 feet—the reporters at the back of the plane, taken with the elation that comes as a long journey nears an end, having turned this cross-cross country flight into a giddy party—he danced to Aretha Franklin’s R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Eight hours later, having landed in Montreal six and a half hours earlier, Jack Layton boarded a bus that bears a gigantic likeness of his face and set off for a market downtown. Upon arrival he disembarked and was greeted by a man who proclaimed him the next prime minister of Canada and handed him two miniature flags. Strolling the scene, with Thomas Mulcair and the local candidate keeping close, he paused at a fruit stand and accepted a slice of watermelon. A woman stopped him and asked him to take a picture with her daughters and their dog. He cooed over an infant and purchased some dates. The proprietor of a cheese shop stepped outside to shake his hand.

Across the street then and into the middle of a mob that waited to hear him.

“You have an historic opportunity here,” he told them.

***

So how did we get here? What’s already happened and what happens now?

Three weeks ago, this endeavour seemed doomed—even more doomed that it has always seemed. This was a two-man race and neither of those men were Jack Layton. As he hobbled around the country on a cane, the end of his political career seemed to be coming into view on the horizon.

And then something happened. And even if we cannot know precisely what that something was or is, we can know it occurred. Because here we are. In a place that seems entirely different, entirely new.

Well, almost entirely. One thing seems not to have changed: Jack Layton. The crowds may be larger, the mood may be happier, the momentum may seem completely reversed. But here is Jack Layton, sounding pretty much as he always has.

Sure, his colour has returned and his weight seems mostly back and maybe the past year has aged him more than 12 months normally would. Maybe he looks wiser now. Maybe that cane gives him gravitas—that look of experience and injury and persistence. Maybe he carries himself now with a certain serenity. Or maybe that’s just perception. Maybe it’s just that the opinion polls seem to match his words and his smile. Because mostly this is Jack Layton, same as he ever was. Never mind who’s laughing now. Jack Layton has never not been smiling and laughing. He has never not been talking about some future, however far off, when he would have something to smile and laugh about. He has been building that damn house for eight years now.

And yes we all laughed. And surely this is all now a bit disorienting. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. Not him. Not those believed in him. Not everyone else who never thought anything would ever change.

But everyone understands that something might happen. Something to make real the something that has already happened. And that is, well, something.

***

The crowd in Kingston filled the sidewalks on either side of the road and spilled into the street. The police had to clear a path for traffic. They chanted and cheered and awaited his arrival. They applauded a tour group’s passing bus, mistaking it for his.

When the bus with his face did arrive and he disembarked, he told them there was reason to believe, that a “spirt of hope” had taken hold across the country. “It’s our opportunity to do this,” he said.

To Oshawa then, where 200 people stood outside a campaign office in the rain. He was late, but they lingered. He stepped inside and told the crowd there that it was time to make a “real change” and then he stepped out and repeated his appeal for those waiting in the drizzle under umbrellas.

They waited in Toronto too, under the streetlights. He was late and they lingered. Another 200 people, standing around in the rain, spilling over the sidewalk. The bus with his face pulled up alongside and they pressed in close and he addressed them from the vehicle’s steps. “Are you ready to make some change happen?” he asked. “PM Jack! PM Jack!” they chanted. He pulled his wife on board and gave her a kiss.

Finally then, as the end of the 37th day neared, to Scarborough—now 12 hours and 500 kilometres removed from Montreal. Inside Emily Carr Public School, 600 people had filled a tiny gymnasium to its capacity. The local candidate introduced the next prime minister of Canada and Mr. Layton bounded on to the platform to a great roar.

He told this crowd what he has told anyone who would listen. About the winds of change that are blowing. About how Ottawa is broken. About the choice Canadians now realize they have. About hiring doctors and creating jobs and capping credit card rates and preserving retirement security and “leadership you can trust.” He joked and he laughed with a crowd that seemed to want to respond.

“But, my friends,” he said, “in these last few days, bring change to Ottawa isn’t up to me. It’s up to you.”

“Yes!” the crowd called back.

“It starts with a vote,” he said. “Your vote.”

He asked them to bring their friends and family and whoever else they can find. He reminded them of everything they can choose and then he made his pledge one last time.

“You where I stand. You know I’m a fighter,” he said, seeming to draw the moment out a bit more than usual. “And I won’t stop until the job is done.”

They roared again.

“So let’s get out there and make it happen,” he called, thrusting a fist into the air.

He leaned over to meet the out-stretched hands all around him. He appeared delighted with everything.

From the speakers blared Sloan’s Believe in Me. Really, it’s all he’s ever asked.


 

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