It was perhaps a bit odd that Jack Layton’s disclosure last week that he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer would be cause for consideration of his political career and public life to date. He is by no means doomed and is entirely likely to make a full recovery. But perhaps we in this culture crave any opportunity to pause for reflection.
As it is, Mr. Layton seems more inclined to carry on, showing up this afternoon to explain how and why the next session of Parliament should be dedicated, sort of like the Titanic, to putting “women and children first.” Here was Jack Layton as he is, and seemingly as he always has been: insistent and demanding and righteous and demanding, for the most part, to be greeted without irony.
There are, of course, those who do not take Mr. Layton all that seriously. He does, if nothing else, seem to occupy a particular status all his own. (As tangential as it may seem, consider that no one refers to the Liberal leader as Michael or the Prime Minister as Stephen, but that the NDP leader is known almost universally as Jack: a first-name basis that is only otherwise ever bestowed upon female politicians and is often viewed, in those cases, as somewhat demeaning.) Perhaps it is his self-seriousness and indignation or his eagerness to claim, with a straight face, a consistent purity of purpose. Maybe it is his party’s insistence that it is and will be, against all conventional wisdom and historical result, something more than Parliament’s fourth party. Perhaps, it is simply that he is a bald man with a moustache.
Whatever it is, there is something a bit funny about Jack Layton. And yet, however that may be, he carries on, seemingly without concern: a talented and dogged politician, who, two weeks ago, celebrated the seventh anniversary of his winning the NDP leadership.
“Recently, the Prime Minister indicated a newfound interest in maternal and child health in developing nations. Well, I’m going to take Mr. Harper at his word and encourage this initiative,” he said this afternoon. “But if Canada is going to lead, then we’ve got to be credible. And that means the government cannot continue to overlook the worsening plight of women and children right here in Canada.”
He sketched out an agenda of employment insurance reform, pay equity, a full inquiry into the 520 missing or murdered Aboriginal women, nutrition, early childhood learning, student debt relief and job training, much of it tied to the theme of economic recovery and restructuring. He was equally wonkish and folksy, serious and hopeful. He strained for eye contact with the smattering of reporters present and periodically stared into the cameras at the back of the room. In a big blue tie and a suit jacket that seemed a bit roomy, he leaned forward and engaged in a sort of sign language puppet show meant to better convey his verbs and metaphors. He called, by name, on his fellow party leaders to join him.
“Mr. Harper, Mr. Ignatieff, Mr. Duceppe, there’s no shortage of good ideas here. If Canadians are tired of the old politics, and I think they really are, the old politics of division, let’s see if we can’t find common ground to get something done,” he said at the close of his prepared remarks. “Let’s give the new politics a fair shot and let’s put women and children first in the next session of politics.”
Even if it you’re tempted to dismiss the man, it is difficult to take issue with the words.
Reporters had been told beforehand that he might not be terribly interested in answering questions about his health. The questions came anyway. “How are you feeling?” one member of the gallery asked.
“I’m feeling good,” Layton said, grinning. “I think that’s pretty obvious,” he added, laughing.
Would he be carrying on with his typical schedule and workload?
“I certainly hope so. That’s the plan.”
It was wholly odd to see Mr. Layton expressing himself so succinctly. When the questions returned to his preferred topic for the day, he once more burst forth.
“I would say that the credibility of Canada is at stake,” he ventured. “When we put an issue such as maternal and children’s health on the table in the global sense, I think that in order to have some credibility we have to show that we’re taking action at home. So with the poverty rate that we have, with the inequalities that exist here, it’s very difficult to show that we practice what we preach … Mr. Harper has to establish this credibility because it does not exist as we speak.”
He was asked if he doubted the Prime Minister’s sincerity. He said he did not and was, in fact, eager to work with him.
He was challenged on this. Surely, it was suggested, just by making this announcement he was implicitly casting doubt on the Prime Minister’s sincerity. “No, what I’m doing is saying that if we want to demonstrate that he’s serious about this issue and that it’s more than just a press release, then we’ve got to take some action here,” Mr. Layton said. “And what I’m doing is extending the hand and the ideas and saying, ‘let’s work on this together.’ ”
Someone wondered aloud what hope he could possibly have that the country and its leaders were ready to deal seriously and sincerely with child poverty. “Well, we keep pushing and we keep advancing our ideas,” Mr. Layton responded. “It took Tommy Douglas a couple decades to get medicare into Canada and we’re not hesitant to keep bringing ideas forward.”
In all sorts of ways, it’s difficult to imagine him ever stopping.