When I was in seventh grade my teacher assigned us a project in which we had to write a business letter. We had to mail the letter and include the company’s reply when we submitted the assignment. Most students in my class wrote to Nike, trying score a new pair of runners or to Baskin Robbins to suggest new ice cream flavours. You know, normal stuff.
I chose to write to John Snobelen, then Ontario’s Minister of Education. I was writing to protest a bill that I felt cut education spending and, in a nutshell, treated teachers like dirt. Snobelen’s office responded by sending me a form letter thanking me and telling me how much they valued their youth supporters. It was clear that they had not read my letter. I was shocked, but remained convinced that it must have just been some sort of mistake. So I sent a second letter, outlining the situation, my views, and included a copy of the original letter. When the reply arrived I starred at the contents, dumfounded. Another form letter, yet again thanking me for my support.
It was then, at the age of thirteen, that I decided democracy was broken.
The next thirteen years saw me stumble, sometimes clumsily, in and out of agreement with my seventh-grade self. I remained sceptical of mainstream politics and was often surprised when political players demonstrated any sign of integrity, or in some cases, basic human decency.
I was frustrated by the mentality that elections were about choosing the lesser of two horrors. I was told that voting for certain candidates was akin to throwing away my ballot. I even missed an election because I got swept up in the thought that it didn’t matter. (I’m not proud of this but I think it’s important to be honest about it.)
This spring’s election was a turning point for me. The long-time MP for Kingston and the Islands, Peter Milliken, was retiring and for the first time my vote really did matter. For the first time since I reached the age of majority, the outcome in Kingston was not a given. I knew that my voice mattered. I put a lot of thought into my decision and I was so wrapped up in the local candidates that I paid little attention to the national electoral events.
But I looked up one day and saw the NDP gaining momentum in Quebec. The NDP? Seriously? The party that had less than 40 seats in the previous election? Any Canadian with any interest in current events knows the rest of the story. Jack Layton and the NDP won 103 seats, becoming the official Opposition.
Clearly there was more at play in the election than the party leaders, but there is no denying that Layton was a driving force behind the NDP’s success.
Regardless of political leanings, May’s election results were refreshing. Layton reminded Canadians that democracy is about choices. We don’t need to listen to pundits telling us we have only two choices. (A Red door or a Blue door. WHAT?) Each vote does matter. We don’t have to put up with politicians who ignore our letters, nor do we have to settle for basic human decency as the bar for greatness in politics.
Layton, of course, put it best in his final letter to Canadians:
“Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We 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. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. “
The news of Mr. Layton’s passing has saddened me more than I ever would have imagined. To be honest, my emotional response is probable in part due to culture shock. But it’s more than that. I am also deeply saddened by the loss of a leader who gave us something truly exciting in the political landscape, something worth paying attention to.
I’m assuming that people will start discussing Layton’s legacy soon, if they haven’t already. I’m not a political expert and I didn’t agree with all of Jack Layton’s politics but his legacy in my mind is clear. I, and my inner thirteen year old, will always be grateful to him for helping restore my faith in democracy. Thank you, Mr. Layton.