Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Jack Layton


People like to joke that politicians lie a lot. It’s a stereotype I’ve always found unfair: often politicians spin the truth because they are asked hundreds of questions a day, because they have talking points to get across, because they honestly don’t know an answer or they would get heck from word-parsing reporters if they spoke too bluntly.

Then there are the most sympathetic lies, the ones to make us feel better. When Jack Layton held a press conference last month announcing his leave of absence from politics, claiming that he would fight his cancer now so he could fight for families in the near future, how much were his brave faced words for us, his supporters and well-wishers, and how much were they for himself?

Another word for lies is fiction, and the story of the NDP over the last six months has the dramatic twists and turns of a Victorian melodrama: years of patient and at times-plodding ground work leads to a historic breakthrough for the party, ricocheting to second place to become the Official Opposition, only to have the leader who cleared the path snatched away before getting to fulfill his new position.

And what happens next? With no obvious replacement in the wings with the same mix of Quebec folksiness, Toronto activism and telegenic star quality, many columnists are already pitying the NDP (indeed, even the future of progressivism in Canada) for all its dashed potential. To which I have one thing to say; the NDP has always been underestimated, particularly by reporters. Just give it time.

For the leader of a political party which has been treated at worst patronizingly and with hostility, but often just plain ignored, the overwhelming outpouring of grief is surprising. Facebook profile pictures are awash in orange and the spontaneous memorial at City Hall would even bring a tear to Mayor Ford.

Perhaps its because so many voters, who never supported the NDP before, finally felt like they trusted Jack and believed in his hopeful vision. It’s like becoming good friends with a person you’ve known for years, only to have them snatched a way. The unfairness is cruel.

But let’s not end on that note. Instead, we should take inspiration from everything Jack accomplished. We need to continue to fight for the ideals he held dear, especially with the prospect of Mayor Ford, Prime Minister Harper and (potentially) Premier Hudak at the same time, and with far-right Ayn Rand nut jobs crowding the Republican primaries down in the States.

Government is not evil. Government is where people come together to make things better. As Jack said in his farewell letter, Canada is one of the best countries in the world, but it could be better – “a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity.”

I’ll end with the ending of Jack’s letter. It’d be too daunting to write a better one.

“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.”


The Conflicted New Democrat

It was the best of outcomes, it was the worst of outcomes. As the polls predicted, but no supporter could actually believe, the New Democrats doubled their last greatest seat count, decimated the Bloc Quebecois and, for the first time, became her Majesty’s Official Opposition.

But it came with a price: Stephen Harper got his long-sought-for majority, ensuring that he will be Prime Minister until I am thirty years old. The fact that he achieved this with only forty percent of the vote is further evidence that our first-passed-the-post electoral system fails the majority of voters.

But let’s start with the day of the election. After some soul-searching I had decided to pound the pavement for my local NDP candidate Andrew Cash. I had volunteered in campaign offices before (and, because my parents both worked for the party in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I was partially raised in them) but I had not gotten involved in an election since I was 19. Because I was never comfortable bothering people on the telephone or going door-to-door, despite the fact that I knew that those were still one of the surest ways to promote the candidate, I often ended up performing safe but uninspiring tasks, like photocopying and dropping leaflets.

This election I worried that if I didn’t get involved, if I was too afraid to be even a small part of the ‘orange tide’ I would regret it. Your values are only your values if you affirm them when it’s inconvenient. For me this meant waking up at 8.30 am, pinning on some vintage NDP buttons from my parents’ collection (don’t tell), and heading out in the rain to ‘pull the vote’: going door-to-door, reminding people who said they would support the candidate to go vote. If they say, as many do, that they plan on voting that afternoon or evening, you are to write it down and return later to make sure they do. You are to be, like a Jehovah’s Witness, friendly but persistent.

Luckily, my old friend Sarah Lewis was volunteering for the same campaign. Sarah is an incredibly sweet and unassuming young woman, and she feels just as uncomfortable knocking on doors and talking to strangers. But she is from a family that is even more invested in the party than mine (yes, she’s related to that Lewis) and volunteers in every election. Her commitment and ability to overcome her nerves was a powerful inspiration.

Even though she was given her own couple blocks (you are handed a map of streets along with a list of would-be supporters), she accompanied me on my first poll for moral support. She encouraged me to knock on doors even when I found reasons not to (“I don’t know, there’s no lights on… maybe no one’s home…”) and made me be the one to speak when people actually answered.

“You’re doing great!” she would said. “You’re a natural.” But my stomach still turned whenever I rang a doorbell, as if I expected people to yell and curse and reach for shotguns. Frankly, I have new-found respect for Jehovah’s Witnesses.

After two blocks, like a parent teaching a kid to ride a bike, Sarah began to let go. “Okay, Max, I’m going to go off to do my own poll now. I know you can do this. You’ll be fine!”

“Alright…” I said, shaky as a toddler on training wheels.

I needn’t be afraid as, it being the middle of the day, most people were not home. There was one beautiful old renovated house (the porch was painted deep purple) where a small note was taped to the door asking visitors to not wake the baby by ringing the bell. But by the time I was close enough to read it, the dog was barking and a young mother sleepily came to the door.

“I’m sorry!” I said. “I’m from the Andrew Cash campaign, just reminding you today is election day.”

“I know,” she said.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see the note in time. I didn’t ring the bell. Did the little one wake up?”


“I’m sorry!”

“It’s okay. My husband and I will vote tonight. And we’re supporting Cash.”

“Okay. Thanks! Bye!”

Other than that, and a talkative older woman who said she had to support us because she knew someone (potentially her son) who played in a band with the candidate and NDP MP Charlie Angus, my day passed without incident.

I was losing steam in the early afternoon, so I went back to the buzzing campaign office to wait for Sarah to grab some lunch. There were so many volunteers, the organizers barely seemed to know what to do with them. It’s ironic that people are more encouraged to get involved in a campaign that’s doing well when it’s winning campaigns that least need the support. I was feeling tuckered out and worried that I wasn’t helping in a substantive way. Then Andrew Cash waltzed in and came right up to introduce himself.

“How’s it going out there?” he asked.

“Oh, it’s great. Good response. How’s it going out there for you?”

“It’s fantastic.” Then he added, with touching sincerity, “Thanks so much for being here today and helping out. It means a lot.” And with that, he was off and I was revived.

Political buttons are an interesting thing. Especially when you’re wearing a lot of them and looking somewhat official (ie. walking around with paper and a pencil) strangers see you differently, as though you’re in a uniform. You’re no longer just some guy on a street, but a representative whom they feel secure in talking to. After I passed an older black man on the sidewalk, he called out,

“So who’s going to win tonight?”

“In this riding? I think we are.”

“And who’s going to be Prime Minister?”

Not sure what my official line should be as a NDP scrutineer, I paused. “Well, I think Stephen Harper probably will.”

“Really?! The man’s a bully. It’s Mulroney all over again. When’s this country gonna learn? Why can’t Layton be Prime Minister, with the support of the Liberals?”

“Well, that may be one option going forward…”

“Yeah. Alright. Good luck!”

Watching the results that night was both exciting and tense. Exhilarating as the NDP seats rose dramatically, towering over the Liberals, but scary as the Tories’ inched towards the 155 seat mark which would give them a majority. My friend and I played a not-very-strict drinking game in which we’d take a sip for every NDP win, but take several for every Conservative one. Tipsiness ensued.

And Cash walloped Liberal Mario Silva.

My parents, who dedicated large parts of their adult lives to the New Democratic Party, never dreamt that we could become the Official Opposition. But their pride was dampened by Harper’s supposed mandate.

“Perhaps it had to be this way,” my Dad said.

To people who blame the NDP for splitting the left by stealing voters from the Liberals, I’m going to quote Ralph Nader when he was asked after the American election in 2000 if he felt bad for potentially spoiling Al Gore’s win. “No. He spoiled mine.”

So in conclusion, happy about NDP opposition but sad about Tory majority; happy about the decline of the Bloc but sad about decline of the Liberals (for the country’s sake, even if it benefits my party); sad about four years of PM Harper but happy that the new NDP caucus gets the same about of time to provide a local progressive counter-narrative. Trepidatious about the next parliament but hopeful for the future of Canada and our democratic ability to remake our country. It’s a privilege that daily headlines about dictators and murdered protesters reminds us we’re lucky to have.

Orange Crush

Where did this come from? Is it all a dream? The election no one wanted, the election no one cared about, the election that must fight for air time against what dress an unemployed British girl may or may not wear to her wedding, might now become historic seismic shift, a transformative moment in Canadian politics.

I’ve been following it pretty closely but even I was caught off guard by the NDP’s ‘surging’ poll numbers, the ‘orange crush’ that swept Quebec and is now moving across the country. Even dyed-in-the-wool supporters were shocked with the polls this weekend that show the New Democrats ahead of the Liberals and poised to be the official opposition. Never before has this happened and it’s still difficult to believe it will.

Up until recently, Jack Layton was  treated as a third party/third wheel, patronized by reporters who didn’t understand why he still didn’t get it was a two-person race. After the debates, as he claimed that more and more Canadians were hearing his message, a reporter in a yuppie suit (taking notes on his blackberry) snapped “But you say that every time and you still lose!”

“Are you kidding?” Jack replied. “We’ve won more seats in each of the last elections.”

How did this happen? Well, people obviously like Jack. He is an appealing fellow. He’s also been around enough that voters think they know him and what he’s about. EKOS pollster Frank Graves referred to him as that kind of average, Tim Hortons guy. While Americans pick a president who they’d like to get a beer with after hours, we Canadians, of a milder temperament, prefer our elected leaders to dunk Tim-bits. Graves also credits Jack’s cheeriness, the inspiring story of his battle with cancer and the overall positivity of the NDP campaign. Ads like the one below pratically scream ‘Yes We Can!’

But even as an NDP supporter, I must admit that a vote for Jack is also a vote against the other leaders. The Green Party’s numbers collapsed early on and haven’t rebounded. And, even though his core supporters stay loyal, only the most dedicated Conservative voter gets warm and fuzzy thinking about Stephen Harper.

But the biggest drop is inarguably that of Michael Ignatieff and the hapless Liberals. He must be wondering why the Trudeau-mania-style excitement which was supposed to be his has ended up boosting his opponent. I must once again quote James Mason in ‘A Star is Born’: “A career is a very curious thing. Talent isn’t always enough.” Timing is, of course, essential (seeing your chance and seizing it) but most important is that “little something extra”, that difficult to define but impossible to fake star quality. Jack has it. Ignatieff does not.

It looks like the Liberals, once Canada’s ‘natural governing party’, will witness their third disastrous election in a row, and their second leader who will be unceremoniously dropped once all the ballots are counted. A man who probably should have stayed in the ivory tower of academia will most likely return to his essays and books, his head spinning from his tumultuous foray into the messy world of politics.

Who knows if it will last, but for now, my Mom is running around the house, ruing that “the one election I don’t work in is the one we win!”

Still, there’s five days to go.

And Kate might choose ivory.