I return to Canada from a week abroad to discover that the Canadian media are resurrecting Jack Layton. At least the Globe and Mail and CBC are.
Late Monday afternoon I watched CBC's The National anchor Peter Mansbridge, in a caricature of gravitas, promoting his "exclusive" interview with Layton's widow, Toronto N.D.P. M.P. Olivia Chow. I opened my Globe and Mail on my breakfast table this morning and see full reportage on the Mansbridge interview. Its highlight was apparently the revelation that Chow will resist dynastic temptation and graciously decline to succeed her late husband as party leader.
Jack Layton was a genuine and decent fellow, and a Canadian deeply engaged in the civic life of his country. My issue is with all of the above being delivered not with the respect due the man, but as if the nation's history has been forever altered by his demise. It's delivered, in other words, as if the "national" journalists responsible for it are either shamelessly pandering to a narrow constituency of fellow travellers in downtown Toronto, or have simply forgotten the distinction between telling the truth and fabricating myth.
The truth is that Jack Layton was the leader of a fourth-place party in the House of Commons for eight years, until a freakish confluence of events on May 2, 2011 made him Leader of the Official Opposition. And, no, that's not speaking ill of the dead. It's not disparagement of Layton. In politics, in sports, in business, in life, you take your wins as you get them and let the sore losers mumble "fluke" as they walk away nursing their self-inflicted wounds. A win is a win and Layton won legitimately, at least in Quebec. But the myth spreading like wine on a white table cloth is that the N.D.P.'s genuinely amazing victory in 59 of Quebec's 75 federal seats positioned him and the party within striking distance of wresting government from the Harper Conservatives in 2015.
It's one thing for partisans to indulge in that kind of pipe dreaming. But it's professional irresponsibility for working journalists to propagate something so, shall we say, counter-factual.
The fact is that, outside of Quebec, the N.D.P.'s results were just this side of disastrous in the rest of the country. In an election when the Liberals suffered an existential collapse, Layton's party was able to pick up only seven seats net in English-speaking Canada. Worse, all the gains came in only two provinces—five in Ontario and two in B.C. offset by the loss of one seat in Newfoundland. Take away Quebec, and a party that was bred and born and has existed for 50 years in English Canada was barely able to crawl over the levels achieved by former leader Ed Broadbent nearly a quarter century ago. And taking away Quebec is entirely justifiable. As we're learning from the preliminary machinations of its leadership race, the N.D.P. has almost more Members of Parliament than it does card-carrying members in the province. It is, as they say, all hat and no cattle.
Would that have changed had Layton lived? Who knows? He didn't, sad as that is on a human and personal level. The thing we do know is that Jack Layton's legacy is a party with an extremely fragile hold on the happenstance success of a single electoral cycle. That's the truth. It's what journalists are supposed to tell. Resurrection belongs to someone else entirely.