In many ways, I consider myself to be very blessed and to be very fortunate. I have a loving family who I can always depend on, an amazing wife and best friend who I can’t imagine life with and a bubbly daughter who is full of life, curiosity and who continues to amaze me and make me so proud every day. I’ve also been so blessed and fortunate to get to live out a life long dream to work in politics, to call Parliament Hill my workplace and to get to take part in the policy and political discussions of our time. And in that job, I was blessed to get to work under the leadership of an amazing Canadian who we lost far too soon.
For my first two and a half years of working in the NDP caucus, I got to work under Jack’s leadership. From the time that I came onboard in late 2009 until his passing on August 22nd, 2011, I got a seat close to the front to witness an amazing example of what is possible and how politicians can be. And when I saw close, well look for yourself:
Yep, I remember so clearly the day that I saw that image flash into my personal email, part of an email blast from the party, my pudgy face in the background. Not my best picture, but something that reminded me of where I was. Working in Jack’s caucus was an amazing experience. It didn’t matter how big or small your job was, Jack wanted to talk to everyone. I still remember one time in early 2011 when I was working for John Rafferty that Jack called our office. I answered the phone, and as we started to talk, I said that John was out of the office and that he could get him on his cell phone, presuming that was his reason for calling. In response to that, he just said “Thank you” and continued to speak to me, asking me what was going on and my thoughts on this and that. That conversation was less than 10 minutes, but it stuck with me because here was this guy, the leader of a political party with the balance of power in a minority government, and here he was talking to little old me, the guy whose job it was at the time to answer the phone, manage the budget and write correspondence. That short conversation made me feel a thousand feet tall, but also a real part of a team.
It was moments like those, and through my involvement with the NDP’s Aboriginal Peoples Commission over the years, that showed me just how wrong I was about Jack at the start. It’s true, I became a card-carrying member of the NDP in the leadership campaign that elected Jack. I joined to support Bill Blaikie, who I liked a lot and had huge respect for. But I also joined because I was opposed to Jack. Being from Northwestern Ontario, I saw Jack as this downtown Toronto, city slicker know it all who had no clue about what it was like for people like me. And honestly, I’ve never been so happy to have been so horribly wrong about something. Over the years, Jack proved to me just how wrong I was, by his actions, his words and his hard work. He didn’t presume to know it all and he took the time required to not just know something but learn it and feel it. His example stuck with me and is something I keep going back to today.
And it was eight years ago today we lost him, a day I still remember so vividly. I came into my office in the Confederation Building on the Hill that morning at my usual time around 8 am. I turned on the TV in my office, as I did each morning, and put on the news. I was into my usual routine of signing onto my computer to check my email when I caught something out of my left eye; it was Peter Mansbridge. I didn’t see anything else; I was just thinking how odd it was to see Mansbridge on at 8 am. At that same time my email came to life, with a copy of a press release with the news. Then I finally noticed the crawl at the bottom of the TV screen. Then I just sat, stunned, teary.
When we last saw him at his press conference that July, we knew how bad things were. Some of us had been there for his first bout with cancer and had been through this before. Right before that press conference we staff were called to an important, last minute staff meeting, which had all the hallmarks of a similar meeting we had back when Jack’s first cancer fight was announced. I remember saying to a couple of colleagues that day about that experience, saying that it will be alright. He fought this before and won, and he will again. But when we saw and heard him, I was stunned. Despite that, we were hopefully; Jack had fought this before and won, so he would again.
So when that news hit on that morning, it brought a pain, sadness that was hard to explain but a feeling that I remember so vividly to this day. I remember a friend and colleague who worked across the hall coming into my office, wondering what we should do. We weren’t going to be working that day so what should we do? Go home? Stay in our offices? That didn’t feel right. So she had an idea that we acted on. I called the House of Commons folks and asked to get access to our caucus room. She called the food services people to get coffee and tea delivered there. Then we invited everyone who was there if they wanted to be there to talk or just be together. So there we were, in the Centre Block of the House of Commons, in the same room where Jack had presided over his new 103 person caucus just a couple of months before. We were sad and stunned. People started to share stories, telling everyone their experiences with Jack. Those stories started to help the healing process, filling everyone with good memories of this great man to build upon their own.
I won’t lie, it’s hard to believe that it’s been eight years since that day. It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long and that so much has passed in that time. Jack made a huge impact on so many and set an example to follow, not only for those of us who got to know him, but for those coming behind us in our footsteps.
I now get to talk to my daughter about those times, that experience and what Jack stood for. In our bedroom at home, my wife has the now-famous words of Jack framed, which my daughter has asked about. When talking to her about this man, this leader, I showed her a picture that her aunt took in the past. It’s of my girl in Toronto, posing on a statue of a two-person bicycle, with a mustachioed man behind her. I told her that man was Jack and that her dad was lucky enough to get to spend time working in his caucus. So today I remember Jack, but I also take today as a chance to re-dedicate myself to the ideals that he stood for, what we all did together. I also take the chance to share that with my young one because that is how we ensure that Jack’s work and message continues to move forward. Thank you Jack for everything, thank you so much.