By Rick Smith
The Hill Times
Anyone who has seen Jack Layton’s geeked-out performance on the Rick Mercer Report, proudly leading viewers on a tour through the solar water heating, über-insulation, and geothermal innovations in his “freaky, enviro-friendly, retro-fitted, green home” won’t doubt Jack’s enthusiasm for the environment. In fact, it says something that in all the time I spent with the guy, I only saw him really angry once. It was in a small meeting with environmental leaders in the lead-up to the Copenhagen climate summit. Jack thought we were equivocating too much on some key issues. He leaned across the table: “Enough with the calculation and the waffling,” he barked. “Sometimes you just have to stand up for what’s right and take your lumps!”
As he spoke, I swore I saw his moustache bristling.
Much has been written about Jack’s sincerity, and commitment, his boundless energy and joie de vivre. He believed in people, and in their capacity to bring about positive change in the world. His enthusiasm was infectious.
What initially drew me to him, and kept impressing me time and again, was Jack’s commitment and eloquence as an environmentalist. Let’s be clear: I’m not talking here about some “tut-tutting” old-school environmentalism, full of nay-saying and reproachful looks. I’m talking about Jack’s early and muscular adoption of the notion that if our country, and our planet, are to have a future, it will only come about through a linking of economic and environmental imperatives in a new and exciting way. His was a personal environmentalism that connected on a gut level. He was full of ideas and always put green-ness at the centre of his thinking.
In his speech on the day the writ dropped in the 2008 election, he said of the Harper Conservatives: “They promised you they’d tackle the climate change crisis and protect the environment. They didn’t get it done. And today our polar ice caps are disappearing, our sea levels are rising and over 20,000 Canadians are dying each year, from air pollution. I know first-hand what it’s like to rush an asthmatic child to the emergency ward on a smog day. No mom, dad or child should have to go through that experience. You and I know that it doesn’t have to be this way.”
He once told me that the desire to fight global warming was one of his main motivations to enter federal politics. And certainly he was very proud of his private members bill aimed at limiting Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Toronto’s windmill on the waterfront was one of his (many) contributions to the face of the city. He was really the first federal leader to grapple honestly with the challenge of the tar sands, making a flight over them into one of his first stops in the 2008 election. “What is the next generation of Canadians going to ask us?” he asked. “They’re going to say, who was in charge when this mess was created? Who was demonstrating so-called strong leadership when the north was poisoned? I believe that it’s time for the kind of leadership that says we’re not going to allow that to happen.”
Jack was an early volunteer for Environmental Defence’s toxics campaign, donating his blood and urine to be tested for pollutants. There’s no question that his early and aggressive support was one of the main factors propelling Canada’s progress on this issue including, amongst other things, the ban on BPA in baby bottles and phthalates in children’s toys. I’ll never forget the media briefing he held for us. Awkwardly perched in a doctor’s examination room, with a (very nervous) nurse drawing blood from his arm, and a circle of media cameras jockeying for position around him, he calmly and eloquently held forth on the link between toxic chemicals and human disease and the need for improved pollution regulation. He joked. He was his usual charming self. A tour de force performance that launched our issue onto the national stage.
Later, and subsequent to his prostate cancer diagnosis, he became a vocal supporter of our Just Beautiful campaign to get toxic chemicals out of personal care products. He told me that he had no doubt that toxic chemicals were driving increases in cancer. “We’re passionate about the Just Beautiful campaign because it offers the possibility for a better future. Scientific progress is allowing us to see that many substances that were once thought to be safe are actually highly toxic. More and more, families across Canada are being threatened by cancer. Our family is but one of many. This campaign will foster better understanding of these links and help us, as a society, to take action. Canada desperately needs stronger laws to regulate and ban toxic substances. Canadian families deserve no less”, he said.
I’ve had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach since Jack’s passing. And I realize that it’s because I took his steadfast advocacy for granted. Day in and day out, through successes and failures, he was blazing a green trail long before Al Gore did his first slide show or anyone knew that a hybrid was a kind of car as opposed to a funky dog breed.
Now he’s gone. And it falls to us to celebrate his fantastic life and accomplishments in the best way possible: to re-double our efforts to make our country a better place. Our beautiful Canada – and our planet – deserve no less.
Dr. Rick Smith was Jack Layton’s first Chief of Staff in 2003. Smith is now Executive Director of Environmental Defence (www.EnvironmentalDefence.ca) and co-author of the bestselling book “Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health.” The views expressed here are his own.