Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I Owe Jack Layton $20,000

I've been a bit swamped with work in recent days and in my own world, so I was shocked to hear about the passing of Jack Layton. I must admit that it made me misty eyed. I won't pretend that I agreed with everything Jack stood for but he was a principled guy and played an important role on the left over many, many years. Something that most of us can only ever aspire to.

When someone passes the response of people who knew them is generally to reminisce about them and what they meant to their own lives. I didn't know Jack well and he probably wouldn't have been able to remember my name, to be honest. But I have a few strong memories of him.

The first time I had heard much about Layton was shortly after I'd gotten into politics, after his run at the mayoralty. I remember that the Toronto Star came close to endorsing him but balked at the last minute - he was a socialist after all. There was a rally at Nathan Phillips - I don't even know what it was for now - but a friend of mine was doing his socialist duty, selling the Socialist Worker newspaper, which happened to have a headline about police racism. The cops on duty, not surprisingly, weren't very happy with the headline and were giving him a hard time. Jack, a high profile councillor, went out of his way to put himself between my friend and the cops and get them to back off.

I later saw him at a post-election public meeting following the decimation of the NDP in Ontario and the election of the Mike Harris Tories with their ultra-right "Common Sense Revolution". Most people on the left were feeling pretty defeated and disoriented by the betrayals of the NDP government, which couldn't even rouse itself to pass same sex spousal legislation. I don't remember much of what Jack said but a few things struck me - his willingness to say that he didn't have the answer but that he thought the extra-parliamentary movements - social movements, trade unions - held part of the answer. The second thing was his assertion that he would never run for the NDP again. When he became leader of the NDP I wondered what changed his mind and always wanted to ask him. I regret that I'll never be able to.

Finally, and the reason for the blog post title, there was Jack's involvement in the ant-war movement. The movement was really building as Jack was campaigning for the leadership - winning in January, 2003. I remember at the time that there was some frustration that he wasn't using his own campaign enough to build the anti-war movement. I can't say now whether that was a fair assessment or just an exaggeration borne of the intensity of those days. What is certain is that he did ultimately step up to bat - using his election and newfound high profile as leader of a national political party to widely promote the February 15 protest against the looming war in Iraq. That protest ended up being massive - 80,000 in Toronto, 250,000 in Montreal. It was the defining moment that made the Liberals blink and call off their official participation.

In April of 2003 the group that I was centrally involved with, Artists Against War, organized an anti-war festival in Nathan Phillips Square called the One Big No anti-war arts festival. It was a big venture, including a professional stage for an evening concert. Being without funding, the cost of everything went credit card. I believe that it was about $22,000. I was working as a waiter at the time and definitely didn't have the disposable income to cover that cost. Because it was at City Hall, we couldn't charge admission - which wasn't the point anyway.

As the evening arrived and crowds began to arrive in large numbers for the headline concert, we were getting a bit nervous about how much money we were collecting. In fact, we were approached by City Hall security and told that we weren't allowed to pass buckets for donations. As luck would have it, Olivia and Jack showed up at that very moment. While Olivia ran block with security, Jack got up on stage, pulled out a twenty dollar bill and encouraged everyone in the audience to do the same. Hands went up with bills in them - there were several thousand people there - and the buckets went around. Later, when Kristy, our indefatigable event manager, painstakingly rolled all the coins we had almost $20,000. If it weren't for Jack, the One Big No probably would have turned into One Big Owe for me. I have to say I wasn't only impressed with Jack's ability to rouse the crowd but also with how much of a team he and Olivia were.

As a secondary note, I was thinking recently about Jack's election as party leader and its significance - not just in the recent election but in terms of the political trajectory of the NDP. Prior to Jack, the party had languished under a series of "realists" who often flirted with the right wing "Third Way" of Tony Blair in the UK. Then came the anti-globalization movement  at the end of the 90s. This electrified a new generation of activists, particularly youth, who mobilized in their tens of thousands to put the brakes on global capitalism's destructive dynamic. That movement also fired up people in the NDP, many of whom were actively involved in organizing anti-globalization events and campaigns. The coming together of the movement outside of the NDP and within it found expression in the New Politics Initiative. I'll leave aside a discussion of the history of the NPI but it was avowedly anti-capitalist in its founding document. And it had wide support in the NDP, including for its proposal to dissolve the NDP in order to found a new party that united the struggle at the ballot box and the struggle in the streets (the very idea that motivates Quebec Solidaire). The motion for dissolution won 40% at the NDPs 2001 convention. The NPI sort of drifted after that, finally dissolving in 2004.

Sometime around 2004 I was at a meeting of leftists and people were bemoaning the fact that the NPI opportunity was lost. I said at the time that I thought part of the problem of the left was that we were sore winners. Even when we won partial victories - and let's be honest, all victories are partial and qualified - we couldn't admit it and were morose about the failure rather than optimistic based upon the success part. Layton's victory, I believed, was a vindication of the NPI and of the left. He wasn't a signatory but he was a supporter of the NPI and he was identified with the left. Layton's only real opponent was Bill Blaikie. Blaikie was a critic of globalization but he wasn't identified with the left wing of the party - more with the middle. Generally, it has been the squishy middle candidate that wins - Alex McDonough had won largely based upon an "anyone but Svend Robinson" sentiment in 1995. To the right of Blaikie was  Lorne Nystrom (who also ran in 1995). That the party chose to go left to Jack and not to the centre with Blaikie was a sign of the power of the anti-globalization movement, the success of the NPI and the ability of Jack to personify the ideals of those movements. He wasn't a radical leftist but there can be no denying his role in pushing for the NDP to adopt a policy opposed to the war in Afghanistan and for working hard to demonstrate that the NDP was a viable option for the Quebecois - not least with the resolution to respect Quebec's right to decide its own fate. He also selected Libby Davies, a long time stalwart of the left in the NDP, as his Deputy Leader. These were significant shifts after the McDonough years and to have massively increased the NDP's share of the popular vote has shown that the NDP does best when it hews to the left. To have transformed the party in that way and led the historic breakthrough into Quebec is a powerful legacy. Jack will be missed. And I wish I'd gotten to thank him for the $20K.


Keesha Ouellette said...

Your encounter with Jack and Olivia is such a lovely memory.  I don't pretend to speak for her but if I were in Olivia Chow's shoes I would be touched to receive a card from you with your wonderful memory of that day at City Hall and how Jack and her saved the day - as it were.

Shawn Whitney said...

Thanks for the suggestion Keesha - I've just sent a note through Olivia's website.

Withercanada said...

I never really knew the guy(I'm in the U.S.),but some of the hostile reactionary responses disturbed me.

Adrenalynn 22 said...

Thanks for sharing this!  I attended One Big No when I was in high school and vividly remember that as my first introduction to Jack and the NDP.  I recall that he showed up wearing a construction vest of some sort and asked for money from the audience - I now know where my change went to and what a great thing he did.  Thank you for the memories!

Shawn Whitney said...

Hey Lynn - that's awesome that you were there and that my story connected with you in that way. Thanks for letting me know - that alone makes the story worth telling.

Shawn Whitney said...

Wow, I didn't know there were any Maoists in North America any more. Glad to see that - besides being churls - they still manage to utterly miss the point.

Mritiunjoy Mohanty said...

Thank you for your reminiscences .. it helps fill out the picture of Layton as a person, as an organiser, as an activist and a leader .... i am a member of Quebec Solidaire ... and did not always agree with Layton ... but he will be sorely missed not just by the NDP but by progressive forces in Canada ... and his passing away at the current conjuncture is particularly unfortunate.

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