I had lunch with Jack Layton once. I wrote a column about the West and the man from Toronto needed votes in the West, so we found ourselves at my favourite Szechwan restaurant in Vancouver.
The first surprise is that he ordered in Cantonese — learned from his wife, Olivia Chow. It surprised me, but the waiter was dumbfounded after so many years of being yelled at by unilingual patrons intent on ordering the fried green beans Szechwan style.
So I was impressed from the get-go.
Then we started talking about his roots in Hudson, Que., and it turned out we knew a bunch of the same people from Hudson. So after five minutes, he was my BFF.
I’m still not sure how it happened; it sure didn’t take him long to get past the Dobermans. I was an easy victim of that legendary Layton charm.
But it wasn’t until he started answering questions that I began to understand why more people ended up trusting Jack Layton than the rest of his party, not to mention Michael Ignatieff and the Liberals.
Ignatieff once insulted Jack by calling him a politician, but if all politicians were like Jack Layton, we’d live in a happier nation. Unlike most politicians — unlike Michael Ignatieff — Jack actually enjoyed mixing it up over fried beans and orange-peel chicken.
The interview turned into a kind of argument about energy. I asked him what he would say to oil company CEOs about the oilsands, and while he didn’t reject the oilsands out of hand, he came back at me with all kinds of questions about their sustainability and about depending on an inefficient and limited source of energy when there were so many alternatives to be developed. He stuck to his guns even though it would have been better politics to stick to the usual array of meaningless messages.
Talk about energy. Jack could light a city the size of Winnipeg with the passion and enthusiasm he brought to his arguments. But he brought something else — he was comfortable with his own answers. It was as if he actually believed what he was saying.
We stayed and argued long past the hour allotted for lunch. His assistant’s BlackBerry buzzed ominously but Jack kept going.
But now he’s gone for good. Though not before making several million friends, including one cynical columnist, at lunch.
We’ll miss him.
An excerpt of a letter from Jack Layton to Canadians, dated Aug. 20, 2011.
... To young Canadians: All my life I have worked to make things better. ... As my time in political life draws to a close, I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.
And finally, to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one — a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. ... My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you 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.
All my very best,