When Lester Pearson died in late December 1972, the public grieving was moderate. Notwithstanding a career that involved a Nobel Peace Prize and five years as prime minister, sober dignity was the order of the day.
And Pearson’s administration was consequential.
Among other things, its legacy included the Canada Pension Plan, a new national flag, medicare, and the influential Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.
Left a profound mark on Canada
Almost 28 years later, Pearson’s immediate successor, Pierre Trudeau, died. During approximately 15 years in office, he too was consequential, albeit in a more controversial way. Whether it was proclaiming the War Measures Act, substantially expanding government spending, introducing the National Energy Program, or implementing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Trudeau left a profound mark on Canadian political, social and economic life.
Although unpopular when he finally left office, Trudeau’s 2000 death produced an outpouring of grief and an orgy of media coverage. The scale and apparent intensity was vastly in excess of what had transpired for Pearson.
In part, that difference was a function of social changes over the intervening 28 years. For one thing, there’s the Diana effect, whereby the death of famous people becomes an opportunity for participation in group emotionalism, however vicarious. For another, there’s the proliferation of media to pump up the intensity level.
Still, by any reasonable measure, Trudeau was a highly influential figure. And his death was a bona fide historical milestone.
Comparatively speaking, the reaction to Jack Layton’s death seems disproportionate. To be sure, Jack was a popular, feisty politician who led his party to an unexpected second-place finish. And he was associated with a number of causes, many of which Canadians give at least lip-service to.
In addition, the circumstances of Jack’s illness and death, and the grace and courage with which he handled it, were genuinely admirable. Even those who found his political agenda distasteful, or his political persona a tad smug, could raise a sincere glass to his fortitude.
But his impact on Canada doesn’t remotely rank with that of either Trudeau or Pearson. Or if it does, it does so in a way that won’t bring comfort to his celebrants. For Jack’s significant legacy is his contribution to the ascendancy of Stephen Harper.
To begin with, it was Jack’s withdrawal of support from Paul Martin’s government that precipitated the election that brought Harper to power in 2006. Then the 2008 coalition overreach, in which Jack was an intimate player, rescued a suddenly vulnerable Harper and provided the necessary breathing space for his political recovery.
2011 brought two more “assists” from Jack. By siphoning off Liberal votes in Ontario, he helped elect Conservatives.
And by winning Quebec, he put a major roadblock in the way of a significant Liberal resurgence. Bottom line, the political math dictates that — absent another Conservative split — any Liberal return to serious contention must begin by recapturing their traditional Fortress Quebec.
Of course, this wasn’t what Jack set out to do. Still, his years as leader of the NDP resulted in the supposedly unelectable Stephen Harper going from opposition to prime minister, first with minority status and subsequently with a comfortable majority.
It’s reasonable to ask whether Jack should have been given a state funeral. Certainly, precedent would argue against it. Traditionally, the honour has gone to those who have been prime minister or governor general, and those who are active federal cabinet ministers at the time of death. Jack met none of these criteria.
Multiple motives for Harper’s decision
Still, the decision is ultimately the prime minister’s prerogative. One may reasonably wonder why he made the choice he did. Perhaps, as with many decisions in life, the motivations were multiple. By all accounts, he had a genuine respect and admiration for Jack. And leaders of the opposition don’t die every day, particularly in circumstances as touching as Jack’s.
Perhaps too there was an element of getting ahead of the curve, in effect, recognizing that a gracious gesture, which costs nothing, allows a potential squall to harmlessly blow itself out.
With craftiness of that order, Jack’s legacy may be with us for a long time to come.
Pat Murphy is a history and economics graduate from University College Dublin, Ireland. He has contributed articles to the National Post, History Ireland, Irish Connections Canada, and Breifne.