A proud Hudsonite who left us far too early, here in a 1966 HHS photo.
Six years ago I was suddenly stricken by grief. Jack Layton had passed away. I sat in shock. Jack had delivered a message to us in the weeks before his death: work together. It had been Jack's message during the election campaign and Jack held true to his message. If our communities were to grow stronger, we must dream together and work together. The lessons I learned in those days were incredibly important and I carry them with me.
Working together meant putting our differences aside to work for the greater good. A case in point was the Champlain bridge. The Conservatives had not included a new bridge in their election promises and with only five members elected from Quebec, no one expected the bridge to be built.
Jack Layton asked me to be the Quebec spokesperson for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities in spring of 2011.
As Canada's Official Opposition critic from Quebec on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities I was tasked with building the case for building a new Champlain Bridge. The case opened with a question to the government on June 6th, 2011.
"Mr. Speaker, both our rural and urban communities need help to revitalize their infrastructure. Take, for example, the Champlain Bridge.
The Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities says that a permanent infrastructure development program will be implemented, but it is time to take action.
Will this development be sustainable? Will public transit be part of the plan?" -Jamie Nicholls
30 seconds are all the standing orders in parliament allow you for a question before your mic gets cut off. Long-windedness is not tolerated. There was much more I could say and would say in the coming months- but taking a confrontational approach was not going to get the bridge built. Jack Layton had shown from example that you had to empathize with the other and understand their point of view.
I understood what drove the Conservatives world view: The economy. So I built an economic argument. 20 billion dollars in trade passes over the Champlain bridge every year. Congestion was seriously hurting the economy by nearly 6 billion dollars according to a report from 2009. I made the argument over a period of four months. A few weeks before Jack passed away I had given a press conference with Saeed Mirza, of McGill.
I built a coalition of experts to speak out for the bridge. We held public consultations, we spoke about it in the media
As the Vice-President of the Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities (known as TRAN
), I was tasked with convincing my colleagues from the Liberal party, Mr. Denis Coderre and the Conservative Party, Merv Tweed, of the great economic value in building a new bridge with transit on it to reduce congestion and thus, help the economy.
I even stuck my neck out to say that Public-Private partnerships were a formula that we would look at before ruling it out outright.
Four months after my initial question, and after countless media interviews and discussions in the corridors of the House of Commons, the Conservative Government committed to building a new bridge across the St-Laurent. It was bittersweet. Jack, who had tapped me to make that journey, was gone.
He left with me the idea that it doesn't matter what has happened in the past, you always have to forge on to build the better future. If we stay mired, complaining of yesterday, who has harmed us, making enemy lists, etc., we'll never move forward. I developed good relationships with Denis Lebel, the transport minister at the time and with Denis Coderre, who at that time was the transport critic for the 3rd party. We found our points of agreement and stayed collegial. Love is always better than anger.
Jack also taught me that there would be people who would tell me that what I was proposing was impossible for one reason or another. He encouraged me to never give up. He said to all of us: "You roll up your sleeves, you discuss, you negotiate." Working together, not for personal gain, but for the greater good. Come to the table prepared and open. Little by little you make progress. Suddenly, what once seemed impossible is now within the realm of possibility and then it passes into actuality. This wasn't pie-in-the-sky thinking, it was a doctrine of working hard and consistently to improve the lot of Canadians.
This was the legacy that Jack left us. Jack always liked to share the following quote from Tommy Douglas:
"Courage my friends, 'tis never too late to build a better world."
This is the legacy that Jack left me. He's gone but he will never be forgotten.