Canada is Swept by Scandals – But by Commemorating Layton, Canadians Emphasize Values Like Optimism and Civility

August 27, 2013

OTTAWA – It’s a curious time in Canadian politics. NDPers in B.C. are shell-shocked after their upset at the polls. Ontario’s Liberals are struggling to retain credibility following revelations about canceled power plants. Toronto’s City Hall is a decomposing swamp. And the federal Conservatives are mired in a Senate scandal that’s quickly eroding their brand and the nation’s trust.

It’s time for an encouraging story and the unveiling last Thursday of the Jack Layton memorial statue at the Toronto Island Ferry Terminal that now bears his name is an ideal time to reflect on a politician that inspired hope and enthusiasm rather than doom and regret.

Whether or not you’re an NDPer, Canadians can collectively agree that Jack Layton brought a sense of “good” to the federal political landscape. The wonderful diversity of his funeral at Roy Thompson Hall through to Jack Layton: Art in Action (Quattro, 2013), the lovely new collection of anecdotes, interviews, and reflections edited by Penn Kemp, and now the public statue reveal the compelling extent to which he brought a sense of good to the nation’s cultural landscape as well.

Of course Jack Layton’s character and his contribution to public life more than justify the response to his death. But through the catharsis and the ritualistic process of memorializing the politician and the man, Canadians were and remain engaged in the construction of a “collective memory.”

Collective memory, as opposed to individual memory, is what social historians, psychologists, and theorists refer to as the shared memory of the group, constructed by the group, and passed on to subsequent generations through film, literature, music, public art, architecture, memorials, monuments, museums, and yes, even chalk messages in city squares. It can choose as its subject matter historical figures or recent events and living heroes. What’s great about collective memory, though, is that it fills in the gaps that historians tend to leave out.

Collective or social memory provides imaginative context for those in mourning by placing specific memories of people, places, and experiences in relation to society as a whole. In other words, it raises awareness of the common values shared by a diverse social group, be it a family, city, province, or nation. In doing so, it helps the group find durable or lasting meaning in the face of adversity and amid rapid, abrupt, not-easy-to-explain change.

Traditionally, collective memory has offered explanation and consolation to societies in the wake of war. Around war memorials, for example, ceremonies can be held to honour the dead, loved ones can be grieved by family, friends, and comrades; communities can come together to recognize sacrifice and engage collectively in symbolic acts of acceptance and moving on. Hope is almost always the central theme of commemoration, not only because the ritual of memory and myth making provide the opportunity to accept the cruel facts of death or to simply look towards the future, but because the ritual serves as a rare city or nation-building exercise.

Today, as the challenges posed by globalization and global conflicts, environmental decay, declining patriotism, political disengagement, failing public services, crumbling cities and the disaffected populations within them increasingly give way to skepticism, distrust, sometimes out-and-out revolt, collective memory (in this case, the collective response to Jack Layton’s death) can likewise be called upon to console Canadians, to renew confidence in Canada and its leaders, and, of course, to shore up and redefine new political identities.

Memory has always played a key role in the shaping of political culture. And while the ritual significance of collective memory and bereavement can be easily obscured by political symbolism or political correctness, what we see through the collective response to Jack Layton’s death is the construction or reconstruction of a singular, uniquely Canadian political identity. The various meanings we confer upon Jack Layton through the processes of commemorating him are not only about the man, but also about the values and qualities we’d dearly like to see in our elected officials.

By choosing to remember and memorialize Jack Layton, Canadians commemorate peace, civility, religious and cultural inclusiveness, optimism, the arts, social and environmental change, political dialogue, improved public services, improved cities, and an improved country. Canadians continue the process, in other words, of polishing the myth and remembering the politician we one day hope to have.

In this way, the reconstructive ritual of collective memory was and remains an act of evoking or calling to mind, if not restoring, to politics and the social fabric what so many Canadians would agree has long been lost and forgotten.

Matthew McKean, PhD, is a freelance writer, historian, and part-time university professor. He lives in Ottawa. Look for his essay about Canada’s mayoral problem in the November/December Year-in-Review issue of This Magazine.

Source: Hill Times opinion piece