"In Memoriam of a Caring and Charismatic Cousin" by Kathleen (Steeves) Kyle
May 2, 2011, was Election Day in Canada. It was also the day of a miraculous achievement accomplished by one of our cousins. Against all odds, John (Jack) Gilbert Layton led the New Democratic Party to form Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in Parliament.
Jack (or as he is more formally designated in the Steeves genealogy: Henry (2), John (3), Christian Albertson (4), John Trites Steeves (5), John Trites Rowe Steeves (6), Doris Steeves (Layton) (7), Jack Layton (8)) is the great-great-grand-nephew of The Honourable William Henry Steeves, our family's Father of Confederation. Mr. Layton was very proud of this relationship and equally as proud of the relationship he shared with his thousands of cousins scattered all over the world.
To illustrate how aware Jack was of his extended family, while campaigning in Regina for last spring's election, he was working his way through a crowd on his way to the podium. "Jack Layton," he said as he clasped yet another hand. "Susan Steeves," the hand's startled owner replied. "Well, hello cousin. I don't meet many cousins out here in Saskatchewan," he managed to say before the pressing crowd carried him away. Several months later Susan's parents were touring the Steeves House Museum and discovered their relationship to Mr. Layton. "So that is what he meant," they exclaimed, and immediately phoned their daughter back home to tell her that she and Jack shared far more than their commitment to social democracy.
During years of museum tours, we have had the pleasure of introducing many unsuspecting cousins to this illustrious member of our family. Some, particularly those from western Canada, wondered how they could divorce themselves from Jack's political views while still claiming him as kin. Not one visitor, however, has failed to recognize Jack Layton as being a visionary leader with the ability to move people beyond political divides toward positive common goals.
Only one hundred and twelve days after election day Jack Layton succumbed to cancer and passed away. The country was swept with a period of unparalleled grief, but not of desperate despair. Because of his example, the nation now had hope that the right person could make fundamental change possible and repair a broken system. How did this man, working from a marginal power base, have the strength of character and stubborn determination to renew our country’s faith in itself? The family that nurtured him provides the answer.
Jack's great-grandfather, Phillip Layton, arrived in Montreal from England in 1885. He had been blinded in a workplace accident, but his natural abilities as a piano tuner and salesman resulted in his immediate and continuing business success. One of Phillip's sons, Gilbert (Jack's grandfather), became a cabinet minister in Quebec Government.
Jack's father, Robert Layton, was a prosperous engineer in a Montreal consulting firm. Robert was inspired by the vision for change presented by Jean Lesage and became an avid Provincial Liberal fundraiser during the Quiet Revelation. As a result, Jack’s first political memories were of putting up Liberal campaign posters with his father. In the 1984 Federal election, Robert ran successfully for the Conservatives and was named by Brain Mulroney as the Tory Caucus Chair. His outgoing, upbeat and contagiously positive attitude made him popular and respected among conservative and opposition members alike.
Jack must have learned from his father how the levers of political power are operated. But he also learned that life was larger than politics, engineering, or social status. At an early stage of their marriage, Robert and his wife Doris Steeves attended a church service where the minister made a call for volunteers to work with young people. Robert became disturbed, because, as he told Doris, "the minister seemed to be talking directly to me." "Well," his young wife replied, "maybe he was talking to both of us." The couple’s commitment to youth work was forged then, never to be broken. When the family moved to Hudson, Quebec the Laytons became superintendents of the United Church Sunday school and Robert expanded his bible study class into a youth group that took on a socially progressive tone.
From his father and mother, Jack learned that his life would have to expand to include those of all social stratum and abilities. The seeds of his social conscience were planted at home, but they came into full flower on the city streets of his Downs View, Toronto, riding. There he found not just political talking points, statistics and campaign slogans, but children, women, and men who desperately needed his help.
Jack's mother brought far more from her New Brunswick up-bringing than her mastery of needle point. Her Steeves roots were deeply embedded in politics and community involvement. Her Bachelor of Arts degree from McGill University gave her the credentials and confidence to exert an influence the world around her.
In 2000 the Board of Directors of the Steeves Family Inc. received a book with a covering letter from the author's mother, who informed us her son was a Steeves, a Toronto City Councillor, and a writer whose ideas would change public housing in Canada forever. Two months later the Board received a more pointed letter from Mrs. Doris (Steeves) Layton. Had we read her son's book, what was our opinion, and how did we plan to notify other members of the Steeves family of its existence? The members of the Board did not learn much about her son from this exchange, but each of us recognized from our own experience a determined Steeves mother fending for her brood. Had not most of the Board members been moulded by just such a force of material will?
The Steeves Family did not coin the phrase, 'as the twig is bent, so grows the tree,' but many Steeves mothers have perfected the application of this saying. It was his mother who insisted Jack begin piano lessons and made sure he practiced, practiced, practiced. His mother engaged him in competitive swimming. She drove him to competitions and stayed to be his biggest booster. What would the tree that Jack Layton grew into have been without the branches of music and dedication to physical fitness?
Mr. Layton’s book, "Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis" (Penguin Books), is a graphic description of how funding to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation was channeled away from a public need and into inflating a housing bubble that may now burst at any moment. His book did not change public financing for housing, but it was a step toward justifying his mother's dedication to her son. A dedication he repaid by making her very proud indeed. Only incidentally does it matter that he made his thousands of Steeves Family cousins proud of him as well.
Our family has lost a cousin who held his connection to us in higher regard than we held our relationship to him. But is this not the mark of the man? He considered he had an obligation to all Canadians while only during his final days did the country realize the precious gift it had gained through his inspiring strength of character and clarity of vision. His greatest legacy would be for each of us to demand that the Politicians who follow him aspire to the same high standard of unselfish dedication that was the hallmark of Jack Layton’s life.
As Jack wrote in his final letter to Canadians:
"My friends, love is better than anger.
Hope is better than fear.
Optimism is better than despair.
So let us be loving, hopeful, and optimistic.
And we'll change the world."
[Doris (7), John Trites Rowe (6), John Trites (5), Christian Albertson (4), John (3), Henry (2), Heinrich (1); Doris (7), John Trites Rowe (6), John Trites (5), Christian Albertson (4), Joseph (3), Henry (2), Heinrich (1)]