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The empty chair

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Today was the day Jack Layton was supposed to return to his job as NDP leader and official opposition leader. Instead his chair in the centre of the House of Commons remains empty.

Nobody has been assigned to the seat, reserved for the head of the opposition party, directly across from the Prime Minister’s own.

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Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel sits to its left. NDP house leader Thomas Mulcair sits to its right.

It is a poignant reminder of the immensity of Layton’s death to his party and to the House as a whole.

Parliament resumed this morning with tributes to him from the party leaders and a thank you from his wife, NDP MP Olivia Chow.

Turmel, who led things off, spoke of Layton’s desire for a more civil discourse in the House of Commons and urged parliamentarians to continue that legacy.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a poignant and heartfelt speech remembering Layton as both a worthy opponent and a colleague and one of the last conversations he had with Layton before Parliament rose for the summer. Before anyone knew Layton was suffering again from cancer.

"As I have said before, I remember at one point near the end crossing to sit with Jack in the midst of it, to discuss a few things, some political, some personal. That was not really very long ago. When I look now across the floor, it is hard to believe he is not still there. However, I will always remember that conversation because, notwithstanding the personal challenges in front of Jack and regardless of the personal combat going on between us, he was still, as always, full of optimism and goodwill."

Both Liberal Leader Bob Rae and Green Party leader Elizabeth May quoted the poet Dylan Thomas in remembering Layton’s personality and legacy.

Chow ended the tributes by saying thank you for the support and outpouring of condolences from fellow MPs and Canadians. She received a standing ovation and many kudos for the strength she has shown in the weeks since her husband’s death.

There are many reasons to expect the coming session of Parliament to be extremely contentious. There are many reasons to expect the whole devotion to better behavior will evaporate when it comes time to discuss sensitive issues like the gun registry and the Canadian Wheat Board, and pressing issues like the touchy economic situation we face.

The NDP intend only to leave Layton’s chair vacant for today. But perhaps it might be a good idea to do so for longer. Every time someone in the House stands up to speak, the empty chair in the middle would be a stark reminder to keep the shots above the belt.

-- Mia Rabson / The Capital Chronicles

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About Mia Rabson

Mia Rabson is a born and bred Winnipegger whose interest in politics seemed clear when she dressed up as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for Halloween in the 7th grade.

Her interest in writing was no surprise to her parents, who learned early in Mia’s life that no piece of blank paper — or wall, for that matter — was safe in her hands.

She holds an honours BA in English from Queen’s University, a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario, and has completed a political journalism fellowship in Washington, D.C. with the Washington Centre for Politics and Journalism.

Prior to working for the Winnipeg Free Press, Mia briefly worked for the Detroit News in the paper’s Washington bureau.

Mia joined the Free Press team in February 2001, and in April 2001 was appointed to the Manitoba legislature bureau. In December 2004, she was appointed bureau chief at the legislature. She became the newspaper’s parliamentary bureau chief/national reporter in Ottawa in January 2008.

In 2008 she was nominated for a Michener Award with a team of reporters from the Free Press for its coverage of the province’s child welfare system.

She counts reliving the invasion at Dieppe, France, with veterans of the failed Second World War expedition and overcoming her fear of heights to touch the Golden Boy statue atop the Legislative Building among her favourite experiences as a reporter.

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