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Aug
25 2011

Jack Layton: An Historical Perspective

Syndicated from: Steve Paikin

JACK LAYTON: AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE By Arthur Milnes   It is a sad fact of political life that it often takes a death in the fraternity to bring out the best in Canada’s leaders.   The recent loss of Leader of the Opposition Jack Layton was one of those historic moments. Whatever the political differences that divided Mr. Layton from his fellow leaders on Parliament Hill, they were rightly pushed aside. From Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Bob Rae of the Liberal party – both fierce opponents of the late NDP leader – fulsome tributes to Mr. Layton came from across the partisan divide.   Harper’s was perhaps the most revealing; his invocation of the lost jam session with Mr. Layton that will now – sadly -- never be, gave Canadians glimpses into the personal and private side of the Prime Minister rarely seen. His words also reminded us there is more to political life than bitter jousting in Question Period and attack ads on television.   The most famous tribute given a fallen leader from an opponent in Canadian history belongs to Wilfrid Laurier. It was 1891 and Members of the House of Commons hung on his every word as he eulogized Sir John A. Macdonald.   “As to his statesmanship, it is written in the history of Canada,” the future prime minister said on June 8, 1891. “It may be said without any exaggeration whatever, that the life of Sir John Macdonald, from the date he entered Parliament, is the history of Canada.”   Laurier also used his address to remind MPs, who were fresh from battling each other on the hustings earlier that year, that more united them as Canadians than divided them as politicians.   “Before the grave of him who, above all, was the Father of Confederation, let not grief be barren grief; but let grief be coupled with the resolution, the determination that the work in which Liberals and Conservatives, in which (George) Brown and Macdonald united, shall not perish, but that though United Canada may be deprived of the services of her greatest men, still Canada shall and will live.”   In modern times, former prime minister Joe Clark eulogized his opponent, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, in the House of Commons in 2000. From his first election as MP in 1972 and on through his service as Leader of the Opposition, Prime Minister and later Minister of Constitutional Affairs at the time of the bitter debates surrounding the Charlottetown Accord, Clark had honourably fought Trudeau’s vision of Canada.   He put these disagreements behind him at a time of national mourning.   “In that famous 1968 election I was on the other side with Robert Stanfield. I will never forget the eloquence with which Pierre Trudeau invoked and mobilized the spirit of this country in that first campaign, but he moved beyond eloquence to action, bold action,” Clark said. “Like our first controversial Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, Pierre Trudeau would have built the railway.”   Trudeau himself, who was Leader of the Opposition at the time of former prime minister John Diefenbaker’s death in 1979, honoured the Prairie firebrand in the Commons – a place Dief had served a remarkable 39 years.   “He was a remarkable politician whose strongly held beliefs, ideals and antagonism were not always shared, though his vigour in holding them was greatly admired,” Trudeau said of Diefenbaker. “He was more than just a public man. He did not simply touch a person, he got inside him... He was part of this Chamber in an almost unnatural sort of way. Even when he did not speak you knew he was here. And when he was not here people would go around wondering what Dief would have said.”   One of Canada’s greatest orators was Arthur Meighen, who twice served as prime minister in the 1920s. In paying tribute to Father of Confederation Thomas D’Arcy McGee long after McGee’s death, he examined the larger issue of the value of praising fallen leaders. Meighen’s words are worth considering today in the aftermath of Mr. Layton’s tragic loss.   “The story of a nation’s heroes is the fountain from which it draws the wine of later life,” he said at a 1925 dinner in Ottawa marking the centennial of McGee’s birth. “There is no inspiration that quickens the ambition of youth, stimulates public service and deepens love of country like the memory of great men who have gone … It will help marvellously the cause of unity in this Dominion when all of us can realize that we (Canadians) have our patriarchs, men and women who have lived great lives, given to their country the last measure of devotion.”   Mr. Layton himself has added immeasurably to our history in penning the powerful open letter to Canadians he did as he faced his final moments. In this, he reminds us of another Canadian leader who took time out towards the end to leave a clarion call to youth and the future in his wake.   Shortly before his passing in 1919, Sir Wilfrid Laurier spoke to a group of young people in Ontario. It proved his valedictory.   “I shall remind you that already many problems rise before you: problems of race division, problems of creed differences, problems of economic conflict, problems of national duty and national aspiration,” Laurier said. “Let me tell you that for the solution of these problems you have a safe guide, an unfailing light if you remember that faith is better than doubt and love is better than hate. Let your aim and purpose, in good report or ill, in victory or defeat, be so to live, so to strive, so to serve as to do your part to raise even higher the standard of life and living."   In these words from our leaders we find the best of who and what we are as a people.   Arthur Milnes is Commissioner of the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission. His most recent books are "Unrevised and Unrepented II: Debating Speeches and Others by the Right Hon. Arthur Meighen" and "Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: A Canadian Tribute."

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