Jack and Pierre: The Politics of Optimism

“As on previous visits this particular occasion included a lunch at the parliamentary restaurant which always seemed to be terribly important and full of serious people that I didn’t recognize.

But at eight, I was becoming politically aware. And I recognized one whom I knew to be one of my father’s chief rivals. Thinking of pleasing my father, I told a joke about him a generic, silly little grade school thing. My father looked at me sternly with that look I would learn to know so well, and said: `Justin, Never attack the individual. We can be in total disagreement with someone without denigrating them as a consequence.’

Saying that, he stood up and took me by the hand and brought me over to introduce me to this man. He was a nice man who was eating there with his daughter, a nice-looking blonde girl a little younger than I was. He spoke to me in a friendly manner for a bit and it was at that point that I understood that having opinions that are different from those of another does not preclude one being deserving of respect as an individual.

This simple tolerance and (recognition of) the real and profound dimensions of each human being, regardless of beliefs, origins, or values: that’s what he expected of his children and that’s what he expected of our country.”

–          Justin Trudeau providing a eulogy for his father (Pierre Elliot Trudeau), October 3, 2000

The death of Jack Layton is a sad point for me for a number of reasons. I work as a financial planner and as a result sell life insurance. The worst part of my job is delivering a death check. For at that point, one comes close to death. One comes close to the anguish of our temporary time on this world.

Our mortality is what defines our humanity. The mere fact that we are not eternal is how we derive value. It is important that we eat, sleep, have clothes and have shelter. It is important in our society that we derive our essential life tools from our income and work.  This experience is that death reminds us of.

Ironically, Jack understood this before his battle with cancer. As a child, I remember how he fought for many of the “undesirable” communities in Toronto. As a city councilor , he fought for the gay community and for the homeless. In his downtown ward, he provided an example of what it meant to include the least of us.

Therefore, many Canadians have a world view which would be seen as wonderful, if not idealistic.  He had the passion and courage to advocate for people who needed help. While I never voted for him, I can say that I agreed with many of his points of view.  I agree with much of his final letter. For example, can we not all agree that “Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world.” I do feel that Canada “can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world.”

It is not a stretch to say that he fought for Canadians families. Through different deals with two Prime Ministers – Harper and Martin – Jack was able to obtain real policy consequences for different groups of Canadians.

With that being said, Mr. Layton’s funeral reminds me of Mr. Trudeau’s experience. In his son’s euology, Canadians were reminded that “… this is not the end. He left politics in ’84. But he came back for Meech. He came back for Charlottetown. He came back to remind us of who we are and we’re all capable of.” In that way, Jack and Pierre are similar, if not the same. They both inspired us to do more. They both contributed to how I formed my thoughts on the world around me.

For example, we should care for the other.  By caring for minority groups, we protect our own rights. This happens creating laws and formulating good policy. Defending others comes from actions in our institutions and not just from protest. At the end of the day, it also means being optimistic, pragmatic and being ingenious.

Some have called this ‘The Politics of Hope’. Others have called this ‘Making Parliament Work’. But it is the type of politics that Canadians respond to. Peterson and Rae know this. Trudeau, Clark and Broadbent experienced this. It is this type of politics which saved both the Martin and Harper Governments from confidence votes. It is a form of politics that Liberals have displayed and it is a politics that we will need to re-embrace.

In the 1970’s, Mr. Trudeau has a string of governments. Some were majority governments, others were minority governments. By being optimistic, Mr. Trudeau was able to appeal to a broad swath of Canadians. Through his argument for a “Just Society”, the Prime Minister was able to implement a small “l” Liberal agenda. It included Bilingualism, Multiculturalism and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These were points of view that were central to Liberal Party doctrine. They were promoted by party leadership for more than a decade and they have come to define Canada.

Or one can look at Mr. Chrétien. He appealed to a broad band of Canadians by “running on the right and governing on the left”. Therefore, the Liberal Party of the 1990’s ensured that balanced budgets and government efficiencies and were the priority. This penny pinching meant that government services would not be touched as taxes were reduced in the late 1990’s. These policies goals meant that Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Martin left Canada with surpluses and six successive balance budgets. Liberals were pragmatic in their attempts to reduce debt and taxes.

Jack understood that pragmatism was essential. This is one of the reasons why under his leadership, New Democrats tried to cast off the shackles of their socialist label. They tried to eliminate the word from the federal party constitution at a policy convention. It was only opposition by prominent critics like James Laxer and Barry Weisleder that stopped the move.

We all mourn Jack. His loss is not just one which hurts the NDP. It is a true loss to Parliament and the country. The truth, though, is that the Liberal Party can learn from Pierre and Jack. It can return to its politics: a Politics of Hope, Pragmatism and Ingeniousness.

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