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Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, August 26, 2011

Are Laytonistas and CBC Supporters The Same People?

There is a genuine and rarely seen phenomenon occurring in Toronto right now: the extraordinary public expression of loss for a politician who the media often dismissed as a left wing Don Quixote.

In the streets of Toronto today, I saw dozens - maybe hundreds of people teary-eyed, emotional, speaking fondly of the late NDP leader. Thousands are lining up to pay their respects at City Hall where Jack Layton's body is lying in repose.

Saturday afternoon, a state funeral is planned for Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto's premier concert venue. Several thousand are expected, with a spillover crowd to be accommodated in a nearby park and inside the capacious CBC atrium.

Historically, in English Canada, the electoral success of the NDP was always marginal. After every election, NDP leaders would talk about how being in third place was a "moral victory."

Jack Layton changed that in the last election by garnering enormous support in Quebec. But his popular vote in English Canada, while slightly improved, was unchanged from the traditional low to mid teens. It was the landslide in Quebec that vaulted the NDP into second place with 26% of the popular vote and the role of Official Opposition in Ottawa.

So why this public keening for a leader who, while well-liked, was never really popular enough to win big?

The chalk graffiti around Toronto City Hall tells the story: I think Canadians in general and Torontonians in particular are seeing the death of Jack Layton as symbolic of other losses:

A loss of municipal social cohesion as a right wing mayor, Rob Ford is a distinctly odd representation of a city that always prided itself on its progressive values.

A loss of a national figure able to articulate the higher social aspirations of its citizens. Gay rights, public services, bike lanes -  Layton espoused all the elements dear to the left.

Canadians may not have voted for him, but they were glad he was there. He was a contrast to Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper who is unable to articulate much passion or vision at all.

And without acknowledging it, Layton's departure represents a threat to another national institution - the CBC.

It may trouble upper management at the public broadcaster, but the people who are mourning Jack Layton are exactly the same people who would - given the right circumstances - speak out against the decline of the public broadcaster. If CBC management understands this, they are unwilling to acknowledge it.

There is a certain Princess Di quality to all of this: the loss of someone who embodied a certain view of the people. The acres of graffiti at City Hall are an expression of a build up of a mass emotionalism - bordering on hysteria - which as in England, the powers that were, could not understand.

Back in 1997, the BBC missed the story for days, and eventually, it was the public's demand for a deeper and more intense media treatment that forced the BBC to cover the story differently. And better.

The CBC (and the other national networks) also missed the intensity of public response at the beginning. They are now in full official mourning mode and covering every aspect of this extraordinary public expression.

The sense of loss in the streets of Toronto remains palpable and powerful, and that is what is driving the coverage now.

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