Jack Layton: Downtown Canadian

Where the two main roads of Hilton Beach, Ontario meet at an angle in front of the Hilton Beach General Store, there is a floral planter (maintained by the St. Joseph Island Horticultural Society) with a flagpole in the middle. The flag is at half-mast.

Hilton Beach is the smaller of two villages on this island, possessed of a general store, LCBO, a large, modern marina, and a couple of waterfront patios that cater to island cottagers who come in for a meal, and the big-city crowd that boats down for the day. The big city is Sault Ste. Marie. This is where we are.

The flag at the crossroads is at half-mast for Jack Layton. It’s hardly the only flag at half-mast up here. I’m not even counting the poor Legion Hall in town, whose flag barely gets a chance to reach the top these days. The Husky truck stop at the edge of Sault Ste. Marie – a truck stop! – the kind with the flag the size of a football field, has lowered theirs too.

I want to shake these people. I want to say: Do you have any idea who you’ve lowered this flag for? Do you know where he lived? Do you know how close that place was to the CN Tower? Have you lost all sense of parochial grievance? If so, what do you have left that qualifies you as Canadians?

The fact that Layton achieved a national breakthrough in life while coming from exactly the wrong place for electoral credibility is just as remarkable as the outpouring of national emotion after his death. It’s worth remembering that his success this spring came – perhaps not despite, but at least while being – exactly the kind of person who is not supposed to win elections in 2011.

Never mind the fact that the guy was from Toronto, that great receptacle of negative emotions. The guy was from downtown Toronto. The guy was a socialist from downtown Toronto. The guy was a socialist who lived in a brick house in downtown Toronto with his socialist wife and spent his time pursuing a day-to-day socialist agenda of eating Chinese food and installing solar panels and worrying about the homeless. He rode a bike, for crying out loud. A bike! He wanted other people to ride bikes. He put little places to park bikes on the sidewalks and run bike lanes down the roads. He was a fussy downtowner who fussed about downtown.

Twenty-two years ago, U of T was trying to do one of those things it does, and demolish some stately Victorian houses so it could build a luxury hotel on campus. A group of students – some of whom lived in those houses – decided to try to put a stop to it, so they called Jack Layton.

Layton had an idea. To rally the community to their cause, the students needed to give a sense of what a tower would do to the area. So, at his urging, a group of students congregated on what was then a field south of Bloor, and started blowing up black balloons filled with helium. They tied the balloons to 150-foot long tethers, and tied them at intervals around the perimeter of the proposed tower, creating a virtual tower, billowing in the sky. Then they called the media.

If you dig through the archives of the student newspaper at that college, you’ll find a special edition they printed when city council killed the project, a picture of a young Layton on the cover, holding forth in chambers. (The OMB eventually overturned council’s decision, but by that point the market had soured and the deal fell through.)

It’s a small-potatoes story, but I’m fond of it because years later it would become my college, and my college paper. And all small potatoes are very big potatoes indeed for the people who own them.

Jack Layton was a city councilor. Maybe he never stopped being a city councilor. Even once he was leading the NDP, you could still get him to call you for an earful about U of T or the industrial zoning snafu in Riverdale.

And this is the stuff a national leader is made of?

Well, yes.

Somehow, Jack rolled on past the tiresome identity politics that define this and every other country. As he became a national figure, nobody was ever able to tag him as a Toronto Elite, even as everyone south of Eglinton got tarred with that brush. Even as he remained proudly and intimately entwined not just in his city’s affairs, but in its way of life.

He was a downtowner. He lived the way that people live in downtown Toronto. We know what this means; it involves bike helmets and whatnot. In the last year, there’s been all kinds of political sport made of demonizing people who live like this, in goofier and goofier terms: Socialists became Toronto Elites became “not real” Torontonians became bike-riding pinkos became communists became communists who are plotting a takeover. And as easy as it is to write this all off as unhinged grandstanding, rhetoric seeps its way into reality. There was a warning beneath the silliness: Downtowers can’t connect with real people, and certainly won’t win elections.

Well, sucks to that.

Jack never ran away from his downtown background; neither did he run on it. He wasn’t an obnoxious urbanite (and we all know the breed). He didn’t go to Ottawa as the Honourable Member for Universe-Centre. For all of his activism for cities, the urban agenda – perhaps frustratingly – wasn’t at the core of his electoral pitch. I’d like to think he represented the best of downtown, not its occasionally-myopic worst. He was cosmopolitan in the sense that he wasn’t just a citizen of the whole world, but also of his whole country. Downtown Toronto was the place he came from, not the place he wanted to turn the country into.

What he did was remind us that if you want to put your fingers to the pulse of the country, to understand what makes its people tick, and work to capture their imaginations and their votes, then you can come from a fishing village; you can come from a prairie homestead; you can make it in Calgary, or represent the low-lying beauty of Lake Huron’s north shore, where I sit now.

Or, you can make your home in Chinatown in the shadow of the tower and in the midst of all that is good and great about the city, and work from there.

Everyone comes from somewhere. Jack came from downtown. The flags are at half-mast across the country, and for a moment, it’s almost as if we’re Canadians.


  1. […] Ivor Tossell pointed out an element to the mass Canada-wide mourning for Jack Layton that I hadn’t noticed: for all […]

  2. Absolutely, one of THE best pieces I have seen on Jack’s untimely death, yet. Myself and many of my friends have witnessed Jack or Olivia biking around…or even Olivia on Jack’s handlebars leaving MuchMusic one night, years ago! They lived a great dream and they shared it with us. I truly don’t think it mattered your political stripe, he was an exemplary Canadian. I hope the momentum he built keeps going -and the smiles he gave, give back.

  3. Can you elaborate on the U of T hotel project? Which buidling? Which paper?

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