Layton reframed this generation’s political narrative


TORONTO (CUP) ― I am not cut from the same cloth as so many of my bleeding-heart, political-junkie journalist friends. I didn’t care about politics growing up. I didn’t get into this industry, at first, to get some insane scoop on Parliament Hill thanks to years of policy-wonk-style news gathering. I got into journalism to write sarcastic album reviews, stayed for the spending money and only eventually fell in love with politics.

Federal politics always seemed so distant from me, carried on in marble chambers in far-away Ottawa. Arguments about vague policy stipulations and budgets totaling higher than I could conceive meant nothing to me.

But these days, I surround myself with bleeding-heart political junkies. I take every chance I get to talk political scoops, scandals and scallywags. I love the political chase. I care about the stupid, minute details.

This is thanks, at least in part, to Jack Layton.

I never connected with politics because, to me, politics just felt like old guys who were disconnected from the public arguing about intangible things. Jack Layton changed that perception because he didn’t seem like those other old guys.

I wasn’t around for Trudeau, the last federal leader who’s said to have had this charisma. But when I got involved with student press and started noticing what happened on Parliament Hill, Layton was the first politician who spoke in terms that made sense to me.

For this bored New Brunswick kid, Jack Layton reframed the political narrative. He inspired many people from my generation ― considered by so many to be to be vastly apathetic ― to give a damn.

Layton’s politics were about people first. The outpouring of support and love following his passing on Aug. 22 is the greatest indication of that. He was a man who genuinely made people believe their government could care about them, not just their money. To some degree, all other party leaders tried to do this, but they did not put it at the forefront of their politics like Layton did.

That’s why I started to care. Because I could relate to this everyman in an entirely non-partisan way ― even if he was actually a socialist political science professor in big-city Toronto and I (at the time) was a politically ignorant kid from a blue-collar town in New Brunswick.

To a kid born in the '80s, politics didn’t feel like it was about people, even if they were included in the greater conversation. That is, until Layton came along. His words, with the help of his charisma, framed political life in terms of people first, dollars second, which is what I needed to actually care.

Big- and small-C conservatives might see this as a chance to rip into a novice journalist as having fallen for Layton’s arguably socialist, certainly partisan trap. But in the so-often-boring world of politics, a kid needs to start somewhere.

Today, I care where the dollars go. I see how they affect people's lives. I see the motivation behind all federal parties’ and leaders’ rhetoric. I know the role of prudence, of every dollar, in government spending.

I can’t say I favour the NDP any more than an other party, but I admit that they had a leader that engaged me enough to finally understand why all parties, all leaders and all politicians fight so hard to get elected. Layton was the first politician that made everything make sense.

Layton was an incredibly charismatic man, but his charisma was, to a large degree, a clever guise for distributing his own talking points. As a journalist, I grew to look past the charisma that first hooked me in. But as someone who now considers journalism a public service, as someone who wants to engage the greatest number of readers about decisions that affect their lives, I can say that I admire the way Layton charmed so many of Canada’s otherwise apathetic citizens.

Another New Brunswicker once wrote a poem about being in the newsroom on a night in 1968: a child is lost in a river, police investigate a possible murder and Trudeau gets closer to securing the Liberal leadership. Then, in this Alden Nowlen poem, bulletins start to come across the night editor’s desk: Martin Luther King is shot. He is injured. He is dead. The editor rearranges the newspaper, quickly but smoothly, never stopping, to make room for the news.

Hours after the editor’s shift, the poem ends: “I pick up the paper / again and understand / that / Martin Luther King / is dead, and that I care.”

I cried on the streetcar to work on Monday morning. I am okay with that.

Josh O'Kane
Canadian University Press

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