Each Verse a Universe

Ted Jackson, a faculty member in the School of Public Policy and Administration, was among a group of people asked to write about their memories of Jack Layton. These memories are compiled in a book called Love, Hope and Optimism: An informal portrait of Jack Layton by those who knew him (edited by James L. Turk and Charis Wahl). It has been reprinted with the permission of the James Lorimer & Company Ltd.

When I think of Jack Layton, I think of a sky full of stars.

Writing half a century ago, Quebec-based jurist-poet and CCF cofounder Frank Scott understood that human beings live their lives in patterns that are microcosms of the universe and its enduring laws. “Each verse/a universe,” wrote Scott. Equality and stewardship, and service and love—these were the principles that shaped Jack Layton’s very public life.

I met Jack directly only twice. I don’t want to make too much of these encounters, but for me they were significant. He was a strong and intelligent force of nature, and if you weren’t affected by your interaction with him, you were simply not alert to the wonders of life.

The first time I met Jack was at a state dinner for the Prime Minister of Vietnam, held at the National Gallery in Ottawa on a warm evening in late June 2005. Paul Martin, the Prime Minister of the day, escorted the guest of honour up the long hallway and into the great glass rotunda. Dignified and calm, Jack followed on his own behind the official party, eventually sitting at a table in the audience like the rest of us, though, unlike the rest of us, he received a nod of welcome directly from Mr. Martin.

During the speeches, I occasionally looked over at Jack: his curiosity, intellect and civility were evident at all times, as was his sense of humour, his joie de vivre. The head table speeches were boilerplate, but Vietnam is such a fascinating, complex and promising country that the whole event triggered stimulating discussions at every table. Noisy, positive energy filled the big room, and Jack was in the middle of it, loving it all.

Later, as I was leaving, I saw Jack striding toward the door and held it open for him. “How did you like it?” he asked. Somewhat taken aback I said, unimaginatively, “Vietnam’s an important country.” “You’re right,” said Jack, immediately making me feel comfortable (and a bit like a genius pundit). We walked toward the Chateau Laurier, quickly immersed in a real conversation about the need for Canada to expand trade in southeast Asia, a region he clearly (and not surprisingly) knew a lot about. Much too soon for me, he said goodnight. I watched him, still fit and energetic at midnight, cross the street under a canopy of bright stars. They shone. And he shone.

My second interaction with Jack was at a leader’s roundtable on economic policy, held in the West Block on Parliament Hill in mid-July, 2009. Along with twenty other academics, union staffers, politicians, I had been invited by his senior policy advisor, Peter Puxley, to present my ideas on business and employment creation. Participants included Ed Broadbent, Olivia Chow, and Peggy Nash, all of whom had very smart things to say. Jack presided, listening intently, asking pointed questions, and showing not only that he’d been thinking a lot about these matters but also that he was already two or three steps ahead of us. Gracious, welcoming, serious, Jack had clearly grown as a national leader.

He now had political and intellectual momentum, and he signaled to every roundtable member that he wanted their best stuff, their most thoughtful, actionable policy recommendations. The world was, haltingly, just coming out of the 2008 debt crisis, and economic policy was a high-stakes enterprise, as it still is. We all tried hard to make our contributions succinct and practical, and Jack kept the conversation moving forward, crisp and efficient, continuously connecting people and ideas.

When it was all over, he thanked everyone personally. We hugged. He had been working out, and so, fortunately, had I; it was probably one of the more forceful social-democratic embraces that summer, and we were both delighted. You could build an NDP-Liberal coalition around a hug like that, I thought as I left the building, and I later blogged about what such a coalition would look like, and might actually do.

I also thought of a sky full of stars. Jack Layton had shone again—in fact, he had been luminous—from the beginning of the session until its very last moment. He had put it all together: energy, wit, focus, good cheer, vision and, well, wisdom. We all wanted to work with him to build a better Canada. On that day, in that room in the West Block, it was clear to all of us that Jack would make a fine Prime Minister. It would later become evident to millions of other Canadians.

Sky full of stars. Each verse a universe.

This entry was written by Ted Jackson and posted in the issue. Tags applied to this article are: , . Leave a comment, bookmark the permalink or share the following short URL for this article via social media: http://carletonnow.carleton.ca/?p=9636

By Ted Jackson

Ted Jackson is a faculty member in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University.

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