May 22, 2015


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Capital Chronicles

The empty chair

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.

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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