We all have days in our lives that we’ll remember forever. If we’re lucky, we get to experience moments and be a part of great events that are not only historic, but they will leave us telling our grandchildren stories to be passed along for generations. Today is the 10th anniversary of such a moment in my life, and it still remains so vivid in my mind for so many reasons:
10 years ago today Canadians went to the polls in the 41st General Election and the New Democrats rose to our highest heights ever. Jack Layton became the Leader of the Official Opposition, the Liberals were reduced to a third-place rump and the Bloc Quebecois was almost completely wiped off the electoral map, reduced to four seats and losing official party status. Just to put that in perspective, the NDP’s “Morin Caucus” (the NDP MPs who had the family name “Morin”) was as large as the entire BQ caucus. It also saw Stephen Harper get to a majority government, which did add some bittersweetness to the day, but with the good comes the bad.
It was a historic campaign, not just for the end result but because of how it all went. I still remember leaving Ottawa in mid-March to go to Thunder Bay for the campaign, to help get my then-boss John Rafferty re-elected. We entered that campaign with the NDP far in the distance, slipping back in the polls and in Thunder Bay-Rainy River, we were in a tight three-way race. After a couple of weeks, it looked like we might be third in that three-way race and things didn’t look so bright. A year and a half before I had left a secure job with Service Canada to chase my dream of working on Parliament Hill, in the full knowledge of the risks that brought going to work for a fourth party MP in a minority Parliament. And at that point, inside I couldn’t help thinking about having to find another job and what I would do next if things continued as they were.
But as we now know, they didn’t continue that way. In fact, they took the most amazing turn, the likes of which we had never seen in Canadian history. Jack Layton captured the zeitgeist of the moment and became the most popular leader in Canada in a flash. Between his knockout performance on “Tout le monde en parle” and an epic leader’s debate, the NDP were in the ascendancy and rising towards a potential NDP government. 2011 was the 50th anniversary of the party, which we would later celebrate at a June convention in Vancouver, and here we were on the brink of potentially achieving the ultimate goal this party has been seeking since the days of Tommy Douglas. It was a crazy ride.
It’s hard to explain the full 180 that was turned when it came to how so many people viewed Jack. Before that campaign in our office, Jack’s name never went on householders or was very limited on campaign materials. It wasn’t anything personal, but Jack wasn’t very popular in Northwestern Ontario and the NDP name was the stronger brand. So as it is in politics, you lead with your strength and Jack wasn’t it. The central party gave the campaign large central campaign signs that they made for all parts of the country featuring Jack. Our read “Jack Layton and the Northern Ontario Team”. Those signs normally never went up, and they sat in storage where our riding association kept their signs at the time, which was in a barn on a farm west of Thunder Bay.
But with three weeks left in the campaign, everything had changed. Jack was beloved in the Northwest of Ontario and we couldn’t come up with enough “Jack” literature and product. Those signs quickly came out of that barn and were spread across Thunder Bay. It was something the likes of which I had never seen. While we had done a lot of good work in that campaign to stay competitive, it was Jack that changed peoples’ minds. He made such a connection that we had people pouring into our strip mall campaign office just off Arthur Street East, new supporters and new donors, moved by Jack wanting to show their support. The hall was packed when Jack made a mid-April stop in Thunder Bay, and everything felt so different.
It was a thrill each morning to wake up to new poll numbers, seeing us rise day by day, higher and higher. To see us pass the Liberals, then to take the lead in Quebec, it was all a rush as everything just fell into place. Well, almost everything. I can’t help but think of what would have happened if we had another week of campaigning, but as we know how this story went in the months to come after, there are a lot of those kinds of feelings that we have about that time.
When we left our campaign office later that night, knowing that John was re-elected, we went to our campaign party at Chicago Joe’s in the Victoria Inn to take in the rest of the results. We had been so focused on our own race that day that we hadn’t been paying attention to any early results as they came in. We didn’t get to the party until after 10 pm and when we did, we almost didn’t believe what we saw on the screen. We saw all these seats on the board going Orange that I first thought there must be a mistake. Sure, we were polling well and we had high hopes, but things never seemed to go that well for us.
My colleague Jay and I pulled out a laptop and started scouring through the CBC election night website, seeing who all these new MPs were. It was crazy to see that people like Guy Caron, who our office used to deal with in his day job as an economist with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, now being the MP-elect for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques. I saw Romeo Saganash get elected in Abitibi-Baie James-Nunavik-Eeyou, someone who I had been following and who would become my next boss on the Hill. We also saw people from all walks of life, young, old, students, retired, service workers, all get elected to serve in the people’s house. It was a wonderous night.
Of course, at the time we didn’t know what was to come and it’s hard to not think of this day without a bittersweet feeling. For as great an accomplishment that campaign was and how life defining an experience it was for me personally, I cannot think of “what might have been”. Just like I’ll tell my grandchildren about this day someday, I’ll likely be talking about what might have been for just as long. It was a night that turned Canadian politics on its head and proved why campaigns matter so much. While it hurts to think of the next 10-year anniversaries that we know are coming this summer, this day still makes me smile. It shows what can be accomplished by people who put their name on a ballot and proved that 6 weeks can be an eternity in Canadian politics. For me, it was an eternity that I will remember for the rest of my days on Earth.