The passing of NDP Leader Jack Layton has touched the members of the party’s queer caucus profoundly. All who gathered on Parliament Hill on Aug 22 spoke of Layton’s tireless commitment to queer issues, going back to his time with Toronto City Council.
“He was a great friend, a wonderful colleague and a great leader of our party,” says deputy leader Libby Davies, the longest-serving member of the party’s queer caucus. “The loss feels pretty devastating.”
“We were both on city council, me in Vancouver and him in Toronto, and we had sort of a pledge that we’d run for mayor, and we both did and we both bombed,” Davies says with a fond laugh. “He ran and lost, and I ran and lost, but he and I go way back.”
Davies speaks of Layton’s genuine passion for the politics that he believed in.
“It’s like his absolute joy with being with people and his capacity to go beyond himself and reach out, to go to people,” Davies says. “That’s why I think people felt so comfortable with him and what he stood for, and they believed him.”
For queer issues critic Randall Garrison, his personal friendship with Layton is one of the reasons he ran for office in the most recent election after two previous losses.
“I probably would not have run again federally except for the endless cajoling and pressuring that came from Jack personally, saying no, you need to do this one more time,” Garrison says. “I told him I wouldn’t run in any election before 2011, and he called me late in November 2010 – classic Jack, who either had tremendously good staff or notes and said, ‘I know it’s not quite 2011, but…’
“One of the things he always said to me was we need out gay candidates, and he was not just supporting but demanding on that level, saying that was another reason I should run again,” Garrison says.
“He was an incredible inspiration, and the reason I’m working for the NDP now is because of him,” says MP Philip Toone. “I met him back in 2002 – the man is just a force of nature. This man is able to convey his ideas in such an incredible manner; he connects with people a lot better than just about any politician I’ve met.”
Layton’s contributions to the movement for queer rights in Canada are not lost on the members of his party.
“Once he became leader, we were going through the whole same-sex marriage debate,” Davies recalls. “I always remember that Paul Martin, by contrast, said that it was a free vote in the Liberals, because he said it was a matter of conscience, and I remember Jack said it’s not a matter of conscience. It’s a matter of human rights, and you will vote for this. This is our party policy, this is what we believe it, and if you don’t vote for it, there will be consequences, and there were, because as you remember, one of our members did not vote for the bill, and he disciplined her.”
Then-MP Bev Desjarlais voted against the same-sex marriage bill and was relieved of her critic responsibilities. Desjarlais later left the party.
“Over the years, in the queer community, people have come to love him as a great friend,” Davies says. “I’ll tell you one thing that Jack loved – Pride parades, or anything around the gay community, events and so on. He loved the joy, the partying and the singing and the dancing, and I have very wonderful memories of him at Pride parades in Vancouver.”
“Before it was ‘fashionable’ to have crowds of politicians at Pride parades, Jack was already there,” Garrison says. “It wasn’t an off-again on-again happenstance thing – he was always present. There was never any question with Jack on issues important to our community – never any question on where he would come down and where he’d stand, and he was never afraid to speak up.”
“We can all learn from that, that you can have courage, and even when things aren’t popular you can have courage and you can stand up and do what’s right,” Davies says.
“He always made a point that there’s always going to be a [queer] critic inside the caucus,” Toone says. “Gay rights within the NDP and because of the NDP throughout Canada – they’ve really come a long way with him, and we’re still going to be that thing, and I’m going to be working twice as hard now to make sure that the trans bill passes, and it’s going to be in honour of Jack for sure.”
“He’s going to go down in history as one of the most inspiring politicians in Canada for sure, and losing him is an incredible loss,” Toone says. “He’s leaving big shoes to fill, and we’re going to have to be working really hard to measure up to what he was able to bring forward. He brought progressive ideas a long way in Canada, and we’re going to have to push really hard to be able to keep up the fight that he brought.”
Associate queer issues critic Dany Morin was unable for comment.