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The Cult of Personality: What Jack Layton’s death means for the Canadian political landscape

On the night Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in November 2008, I remember being swept up in the emotions many Americans who celebrated Obama’s victory that night were feeling. I watched his acceptance speech and felt a tear come to my eye, and a lot of pride in my heart for the USA, who finally seemed to do something smart in electing a non-white, non-middle aged, male (male, white and middle-aged all being symbols of western entitlement and patriarchy) schmuck who didn't come from a life of unearned privilege.

Obama seemed to me to be a great symbol for the changes he was campaigning for. His whole “Yes We Can” slogan was both positive and inspiring. His sincerity and enthusiasm came across to me as genuine, and though he was polished, he was not in the least bit smarmy.

I remember posting this question on Facebook: “Where is Canada’s Obama?”

I would love nothing more than to see a First Nations woman from an isolated, impoverished reservation take this country by storm and inspire us as Canadians as much as Obama seemed to inspire many Americans. How I yearned for--and still do--a non-white, non-middle aged person to capture the imagination of this country, inspire us, unify us, and create the vast changes in the political landscape this country desperately needs. We badly need a charismatic person to fuse the growing political and socio-economic gaps we’re seeing right now.

But we have yet to see Canada’s Obama rise from the ramshackle environs of a Saskatchewan native reserve, or an immigrant from a poor country who came to Canada to live their dream life here. Instead, we had Jack Layton.

Thought white, male and middle-aged, Jack had, what seemed to me, anyway, a comparatively sparkling personality next to his leadership colleagues in Ottawa. Here was a man who had gained a reputation as a scrapper while sitting on Toronto’s city council, who moved through Ottawa like a human whirlwind of energy, enthusiasm, and positiveness.

While not a full-fledged NDP supporter (they’re not left wing enough for me), I wholeheartedly believed in Jack’s mission to fight for the little guy, the poor, the politically marginalized, the underprivileged, and those amongst us who are falling through the cracks and on the verge of being left behind. As with Obama, I never doubted Jack’s sincerity or intentions. Though not lacking polish, he appeared slightly rougher around the edges to me--he seemed more real and more human, and of course way less smarmy, than his political opponents.

Jack proved to Canadians in the May election that had the leadership abilities and personality to unify this country. The so-called “Orange Crush” in Quebec and the 103 seats the NDP won that night are probably the most exciting political events I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, and they will go down in Canadian history as unprecedented political victories. The fact that the electorate moved so strongly in the NDP’s direction in the election shows that Jack’s values resonated with many Canadians. He also had a warm personality and an accessible manner that made him easy to connect with. He was easy going and passionate, and he seemed to be quite hug-able. These are all qualities our other political leaders lack.

When Jack announced on July 25 that he would be taking what he called a “temporary leave of absence” to focus on treating his cancer, I was shocked by his appearance.  He was thin, he looked weak, his voice had changed, and he was wearing an awful lot of makeup--either to give him some colour he didn’t have or to disguise a colour his illness was giving him. It made me sad; he looked a shadow of his former robust self, and I knew in my heart this would not end well for him.

Less than a month later, he’s gone. In his death, Jack has once again unified Canadians, this time in their grief at his passing. We have seen how even non-NDP supporters came to respect this man despite political differences.

Apart from the tragedy of Jack’s death, losing him is also a loss for Canada’s political landscape. There is a wide, gaping hole there now and it looks like a bleak and bland place indeed. While I’m not familiar with every MP serving right now, and I don’t follow the parties closely enough to know who’s up-and-coming, who out there has that charisma, that sincerity, that warmth and ease of connection, that passion and optimism, and that sparkling personality?

Inspiring politicians don’t come along that often, and that worries me. We have unctuous, slick, smarmy politicians in spades--but they are not what this country needs. We don’t need polish, we need personality.

So now my question on Facebook is, “Where is Canada’s next Jack Layton?”

Requiescat in pace, Jack.