I think Jack Layton himself could never have anticipated the tsunami of emotion that would wash over this city, indeed this country, with his sudden and untimely death.
What started out as one chalk message by a lone woman at Nathan Phillips Square quoting Jack’s optimistic message in his last public communiqué, grew until every inch of concrete was covered in messages filled with respect and admiration for a most beloved politician.
Crowds across the nation gathered spontaneously to unite in shock and grief.
Media outlets put together touching retrospectives and programs about the man and his mission, and with almost single-minded focus, dedicated much of their airtime to Jack Layton’s final journey to Ottawa and subsequent return to his hometown, Toronto.
The twittersphere was ablaze with minute-by-minute coverage of everything Jack.
Luminaries, dignitaries and, most importantly, the general public assembled by the masses to bid him an emotional farewell.
And on the eve of the official State funeral, the CN Tower and the Niagara Falls were lit up in orange as final salutes.
It was remarkable, a phenomenon, something rare to witness. The extraordinary impact of one life on so many others.
But was it all too much? Was it, in the words of Christie Blatchford “a thoroughly public spectacle”?
In an article published in the National Post the day after Jack Layton’s death, Blatchford was blunt in her criticism of the media’s near-obsession with this story to the exclusion of all other local and international news. (See: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2011/08/22/christie-blatchford-laytons-death-turns-into-a-thoroughly-public-spectacle/)
Blatchford was equally harsh about the public’s display of grief: “[T]he public over-the-top nature of such events — by fans for lost celebrities they never met, by television personalities for those they interviewed once for 10 minutes, by the sad and lost for the dead — make it if not impossible then difficult to separate the mourning wheat from the mourning chaff”.
Her critique did not spare even the late Leader of the Opposition. She called Jack’s letter, his final message to Canadians, vainglorious and said, “Who thinks to leave a 1,000-word missive meant for public consumption … “ and “Who seriously writes of himself, ‘All my life I have worked to make things better’?”
Her cynical and provocative journalistic opinion unleashed a virtual maelstrom. While a few brave souls ventured to publicly endorse her views, there was an overwhelming backlash from virtually all quarters.
And yet, we live in Canada, a democratic nation with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees the freedom of expression. This right is a cornerstone for a functioning democracy, essential to ensuring free and public debate. Jack believed in public debate. Dissenting voices are crucial. Indeed, Jack was often one of them.
We cannot muffle voices just because of a difference of opinion. To do so would be to undermine the very political system we believe in so strongly.
And, so, Christie Blatchford had the right to express her views, both as an individual and as a journalist.
Then why, for so many, did it feel so wrong?
What was it about the life and death of Jack Layton that was so profoundly moving?
Undoubtedly, Jack’s seemingly selfless devotion to various public causes such as homelessness, HIV/AIDS and the environment, which he championed passionately, elevated him in the eyes of virtually everyone.
His lack of guile, his down-to-earth attitude, his ability to reach out and relate to the common person demystified him and made him somebody that people they felt they knew, almost like a family member, even if they had never met him.
His willingness to fight for the underdog, to listen to anyone with a problem, to commit to what he viewed as just and fair, endeared him to the masses.
His commanding ability to communicate effectively in three languages, two official and one musical, increased his popularity across borders, age and interests.
Perhaps it was also the cruel irony that at the very pinnacle of his political career, he was in the battle of his life, and fought so valiantly but, in the end, lost.
And then his smile, oh his smile!, which will be as sorely missed in the House of Commons as it will be in the hearts and minds of Canadians young and old.
Whatever it was, in Jack Layton there was that extraordinary combination of elements that resulted in rare and true greatness. And that, intuitively, is what people responded to en masse in the un-orchestrated outpouring of sadness over the loss of an important figure in this country.
Ultimately, in my view, Christie Blatchford can express her views, however unpopular. That is her right.
But, in the end, it is her loss for not being able to shed her cynicism and allow herself to be touched by a great soul that once walked among us.