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Jack Layton: Leader, Mentor, "Brother", Friend 

Marilyn Churley, former MPP for Toronto-Danforth, recalls Jack Layton's kindness to a rookie city councillor


Marilyn Churley

Despite the fact that the extent of Jack Layton’s illness was there for all to see, it has been difficult for me to fathom that he might be dying. He has been such a significant presence in my political and personal life for so long that the idea of not having him “there” has barely begun to sink in.

Driving back from the cottage on Monday, after getting the impossible news, I slowly tried to process the facts of the matter.

In the news coverage and in “man on the street” interviews we have heard people say that Jack was larger than life, that he made things better for so many other people, that he made those around him better by inspiring them to see the positive possibilities in difficult situations.

All true, but there is so much more.

I first met Jack in the early 1980’s when I was involved in local housing and environmental issues but it wasn’t until 1988, when I was first elected to Toronto city council for Ward 8 in Riverdale, that we became friends. By then, Jack was already a veteran of city council, having been elected in 1982.

We very quickly discovered that we had a lot in common. We both used our bicycles to get around town, we were passionate about the same issues and we liked a good glass of red wine from time to time. It was certainly the beginning of what was to be a very good friendship.

No doubt about it, I was a rookie and Jack took me under his wing.  For example, I once credited him with teaching me everything I know about getting noticed by the media. I said “He taught me how to focus, how to grab media attention on issues, so you don’t bury an issue in too much detail . . . When to be hot, when to be cold.”

And that’s all true. Jack was a master at getting good media coverage for the issues he thought were important. But that was just a small part of what I saw in the way he did politics.

He also taught me, and so many others, how to look for common ground with constituents and how to build coalitions based on those common interests.  He almost instinctively knew how to build consensus, how to find the proverbial “win-win” situation.

It took time. It took immense effort to build trust. But, time after time, Jack was able to show people that if they were open to new ideas, and maybe new ways of doing things, we could find more about which to agree than disagree.

A part of this was the fact that Jack worked so hard to find solutions to problems that others might find intractable that people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

My husband, who used to work with Jack at City Hall, still loves to cite one of Jack’s favourite maxims: “Don’t bring me a problem. Bring me a solution." And that was the point. If it was just about complaining, Jack didn’t want to hear it. If it was about laying out options to solve the problem, he’d do anything he could to help you.

A lot of people have been talking about Jack’s positive attitude. But it’s not just an attitude. It’s a way of doing politics, and I’d like to think I learned it well.

I can’t help thinking that at a time when people can be very cynical about politics, Jack understood how to stick up for what he believed in even if it might mean there could be a price to pay when it came to counting votes.

Sure, Jack knew how to win elections. But if all you were doing was winning elections but none of the things you claimed to stand for were advanced, you weren’t doing very much.

For example, watching Jack stand up to sometimes very angry members of the community who were irrationally frightened of a new women’s shelter in their community was something to behold.

For these reasons and many more I was so proud to be the National Co-chair of Jack’s Federal NDP leadership campaign in 2011. By then I had been a Member of Provincial Parliament for over ten years and was Deputy Leader of the provincial party. I knew my way around party politics and I also knew that Jack Layton had the right stuff to take the New Democratic Party in a new direction and – boy was I right about that.

This is the point at which most people across Canada started to pay attention to Jack Layton’s abilities and the benefits his superb leadership skills might yield for the country, so I won’t go on about that.

The last thing I will say is that Jack was my very dear friend. We often said to each other that we were like a close brother and sister. Jack even introduced me to my partner of fourteen years, Richard. We will always cherish the fact that Jack was able to act as best man at our wedding when Richard and I finally got around to getting married in June of 2009.

I don’t know what else to say. The loss is great. I will miss him terribly, though I know I am not alone in that.

Perhaps a part of his legacy will be that we should all focus on how we can work together to provide solutions to the problems that need to be addressed.

Jack would want me to say this and to believe this -we can do it without him there to help. But we certainly will miss him. 

Posted date : August 23, 2011
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