Being a journalist is a great privilege for a citizen. One of the many privileges is meeting people and be fortunate enough to get to know them. Jack Layton was one of them. The following is some of my recollections of meeting him first as a citizen and then as a journalist.
My inbox brought the sad news from the NDP: Jack Layton died this morning.
I was at a lost for words. I sat staring at my screen and hoping that this was a sick joke by some hacker group. I checked the header and confirmed the email originated from the NDP server. Then, confirmation from CBC News.
Connecting with people and making them feel important
Mr. Layton knew how to connect with people. He made people feel that they were the centre of the universe when he was with them. Despite a grueling schedule, he somehow found a way to not be in a hurry.
What follows are my personal experiences and reflections.
He loved being with people
I first met Jack Layton as a second year university student. I was a student politician at the time and Mr. Layton was visiting my university as part of a cross-country town hall tour.
I had the pleasure of asking him a question in this public forum. It was many years ago and I don’t exactly remember my question. I do clearly remember how Jack took my question and the fun we had with it.
My question was about tuition fees. I used the phrase “they keep ‘Jacking up’ tuition fees.” Mr. Layton with great humour spoke up the second time I used the phrase “Jacking up” to say “I’m not sure if I’m a fan of that term, let’s try something else.” He didn’t suggest changing the phrase to the name of one of his opponents, instead he was just humourously pointing out that I was using his name. He joked that he probably used the same phrase if his parents gave him a different name.
I finished my question and Mr. Layton answered it by actually responding to the question. Too many politicians only listen to a question to decide the closest speaking point to respond with. Mr. Layton actually listened to the question to answer the question.
During the event, he honestly answered dozens of questions and remained past the scheduled end time to take a few more.
Mr. Layton not only knew how to connect with citizens, he knew how to lead a team. He wasn’t just the leader of the NDP caucus, he was a member. What I mean is that he did not have an overbearing leadership style and did not dictate policy to his caucus, he decided with them.
I cover higher education. In the 40th Parliament, I often reached out to the NDP for comment on post-secondary issues. Denise Savoie served as the post-secondary education critic for the third-party and she was the chief spokesperson for the party about higher education affairs.
Whenever I spoke to Mr. Layton or Ms. Savoie, it was clear they were communicating with each other as equals.
There are a couple of instances I remember well. In late 2007, Ms. Savoie was on a flight and I was writing a story on a tight deadline. The NDP communications team put me in touch with Mr. Layton. While I was interviewing Mr. Layton, an email arrived to his staff that Ms. Savoie’s flight had landed. Mr. Layton offered to put me in touch with Ms. Savoie immediately or finish the interview as I was on deadline.
This was indicative of Mr. Layton’s style – he wanted his caucus to get media attention as much as possible. It indicates the confidence he held them in. His answers were just as informed as Ms. Savoie – he seemed to read more briefing papers than I thought humanly possible. Ms. Savoie and I spoke while she was awaiting her luggage in the airport.
This conversation with Ms. Savoie began with small talk about a recent in-person interview I conducted with Mr. Layton over lunch in a campus pub. This reflected the strong communication between Mr. Layton and Ms. Savoie. The conversation also revealed the great joy that Ms. Savoie and Mr. Layton enjoyed in working together.
Sense of Humour
The campus pub interview remains one of the most memorable of my career. It was the early fall of 2007 during the Ontario provincial election campaign. Mr. Layton was touring Canadian universities and visited McMaster University. As I’m based in Hamilton, this was a great opportunity for an in-person interview for macleans.ca/universities
Mr. Layton and I sat down over lunch at the graduate pub The Phoenix. The McMaster NDP club joined us at the table. This was a bit unique and reflected the comfortable relationship I had with all the campus political party clubs. I conducted my interview at the table with some tough questions in there. I included the ‘isn’t it discouraging being the third-party’ question.
The Silhouette‘s photography team took dozens of photos of the interview. One of the photos showed Mr. Layton pouring a cup from a full pitcher of beer at a moment that his facial muscles are completely relaxed and his eyes partly closed. It’s one of those photos that do not reflect the moment and disposed of.
The Silhouette runs a joke front page on our back cover called *The Speculator *in honour of The Hamilton Spectator. We decided to run this photo on the joke page shortly after the 2007 provincial election with a caption that Mr. Layton was drowning his sorrows on election night.
A few months later, I bumped into Mr. Layton on Parliament Hill. He smiled about the joke and said he rather enjoyed it. We had an enjoyable chat and he offered the advice that I should enjoy every moment of student journalism I had – cherish the freedom of student life.