This morning my husband and I woke up to the sound of rain beating down against our windows and the wind lapping around our house. It seemed an appropriate signal to the end of our vacation and a return to work after countless days of sunshine. As we drank our coffee and turned on the computer to read the headlines, we learned that today Canada lost a beloved political leader, thinker and activist: Jack Layton, Leader of the Opposition and Canada’s New Democratic Party. As the rain fell from the sky, we read articles, condolences to his family and friends, commentaries, reactions…it almost did not seem real. Jack Layton was gone, taken from the world prematurely by a long-standing battle with cancer. He was 61 years-old.
I recently became a dual citizen of the USA and Canada back in March 2011. It took some 13 years for me to (finally) acquire my Canadian citizenship; I am honoured to bear allegiance to both of these countries. Each of these nations is deeply interconnected to my sensibilities, my memories, my philosophies, my life as a youth and now as an adult… The United States and Canada share the longest undefended border in the world. We share a commonality as workers, students, friends, and loved ones in the fabric and history of North America.
Despite a close relationship between the two, over these many years, I have been on the receiving end of many untoward political comments: it is a delicate and difficult stance to navigate when diplomacy is often undervalued by others in their criticisms and platitudes. Somehow, you increasingly find yourself becoming the scapegoat for the “mistakes” and “indiscretions” of the country in which you were born and raised or currently reside, and the hurtful words that attack your nation’s political ethos become very personal. You feel defensive, like less of a person. You wish the unsolicited criticisms would stop, you close your ears…you stop believing in change. The most difficult opinions to change are those that are centered around intolerance and indifference. For some, empathy is hard to come by.
When Obama was elected, I felt a swelling in my chest and a renewed pride in the United States. As I watched the crowds cheering in America, I was ecstatic that my vote, along with millions of others, had elected this man as the President of the United States. I lay on the bed with my children, my daughter then only 26 months-old and my son, a newborn of only 5 days…My husband and I joked that our son had in fact arrived a month earlier than expected just so he could be there to watch this historic moment unfold. Through the tears of joy streaming down our faces, we saw the future. We were filled with hope that times would change, that lives would improve and that the slandered reputation of the United States would once again redeem itself as a land of promise and opportunity.
This past spring, as a newly minted Canadian, I rediscovered that hope and pride in the words of Jack Layton. Finally able to have a say in the elections in this country, I researched and read up as much as possible. Mr. Layton’s energy and commitment, his platform of core values encompassing family, healthcare and the environment – I truly felt as though he were connecting with the younger 18-35 voters in Canada, to inspire us to get out there and find our voices – and make a difference in all of our lives. Change was palpable in the air and in the end, it too was a historic election. Even though Prime Minister Harper retained his position, the NDP had overtaken the Liberals and gained Official Opposition status. Watching CBC election coverage that night, I felt a familiar rush of pride and possibility once more swelling up in my heart, choking up as I had with Obama’s victory back in November 2008. It was without a doubt the start of something better.
While there are many who do not subscribe to politics of any kind, or who feel that political leaders make many mistakes, advance particular agendas, are motivated by a hunger to enlarge their egos or influence, I think we can put aside those differences for today. Today I am mourning alongside my fellow Canadians the loss of a courageous human being. Jack Layton fought as desperately as he could to overtake a disease that held his life hanging in the balance – and lost.
I am including here a link to a letter he wrote to Canadians just two days ago. It is a letter of outstanding strength and determination. As the rain washes over our city today, our thoughts are with you, Jack. We honour our responsibilities to our nation and to eachother. We’ll never let anyone tell us it can’t be done.
“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.”
-Jack Layton (1950-2011)