Neither Here Nor There

Peter Pickersgill
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Bon voyage Jack

As I listened to the radio following his passing, I was overwhelmed by the emotion in myself created by the emotion in the messages of callers phoning in to speak about Jack Layton.

It took me back 11 years to the death of Pierre Trudeau. Lisa and I were driving from our home in Gatineau to a wedding in southwestern Ontario. During the five-hour journey, the radio poured into the car a torrent of heartfelt messages from people whose lives had been touched by that great man. The car filled up with them, and so did my eyes.

CBC Radio in St. John's had asked me to write a piece about Trudeau. I was honoured and overwhelmed. The inspiration of those callers helped me put together a piece, which I wrote longhand in our motel room, before putting on my jacket and tie and heading out to the wedding, my eyes stinging with tears.

This time, I was influenced once again by radio callers. There is something almost chemical about it. Listening to others express in the most candid and sincere terms their deep and particular fondness for someone, and then hear them explain why can cause a reaction in you, all the more surprising because you never suspected that all the necessary ingredients for that reaction were present.

It may be that genuine emotion, simply-stated is the sharp point needed to explode the balloon of cynicism.

It happened to me once before. When Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a horrific car crash in a Paris tunnel, I felt a little sad. People dear to me were huge fans of Diana. I noted her radiant beauty and her often-charming innocence, but to paraphrase the Beatles in their serenade to her mother-in-law, I thought of Diana as a pretty nice girl who didn't have a lot to say.

It was not a view shared by the huge crowds outside Westminster Abbey and throughout central London who were watching and listening to her funeral service on giant screens. When Diana's brother Earl Spencer finished delivering the eulogy, as tradition dictates, there was silence in the abbey. But behind the closed doors and metres thick stone walls, the television microphones inside the church picked up the roar of applause from the tens of thousands outside.

The television producer had the wisdom and sense of occasion to switch to the outdoor cameras, and viewers were treated to a profoundly moving display of love as the huge crowd embraced one another, clapped and cheered and wept for their dead princess. I was moved. What the crowd understood, and I hadn't until that moment, was that they were proud of Diana. Her work for the sick and dispossessed around the world they understood as important work for Good with a capital ‘G’. They loved her for it.

I have been aware of Jack Layton from the time he entered federal politics, but like many other Canadians, I was distracted by the longstanding tradition in this country of focusing on the two main parties that have so far taken turns forming government. Jack was a slick talker from Toronto, and, I suppose, in a certain way, I resented that once again we were being told what to do from that place.

When he hired Dr. Rick Smith away from his job as executive director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare and gave him the job as his director of communications, I thought of Jack: "Here we go again, another lefty do-gooder who never saw a seal he didn't want to save."

Within weeks, Jack, to his credit, realized his mistake and let Rick Smith go, ut the impression had been made and it more or less stuck with me. How narrow and petty I can be. As time went on though, I realized that Jack was standing up for the important things in a Canada whose politics were sliding slowly away from them.

His gutsy performance on the campaign trail leading to the stellar results in the May election achieved what no other politician had. He brought Quebecois back to federalism wrapped in a socially just and ecologically sound package.

When I saw his picture in the Globe and Mail in July, my heart sank. I was not surprised to hear the news when he passed. But I was buoyed by the radio's instructive message of the widespread outpouring of love for the man.

It is understandable.

He tells the truth: Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. 

Organizations: CBC Radio, Beatles, International Fund for Animal Welfare Globe and Mail

Geographic location: Gatineau, Southwestern Ontario, St. John's Paris Westminster Abbey London Toronto Canada

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