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Elliot Leven


by Elliot Leven, August 24, 2011

Political friends and foes alike paid tribute to federal NDP leader Jack Layton, after his death at age 61, on August 22.  Layton died after a courageous battle with cancer.

Born John Gilbert Layton in Montreal, Layton was from a political family.  His great-great-uncle William Steeves was a father of Confederation.  His grandfather was a Quebec provincial cabinet minister. His father was a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament.  His wife – Olivia Chow – was a Toronto city councilor at the same time as Layton was, and is now an NDP Member of Parliament from Toronto.

Layton was a Liberal until, impressed by Tommy Douglas’ highly principled stand against the War Measures Act in 1970, he joined the NDP.

Prior to entering politics, Layton was a political science professor at Ryerson University. He served as a Toronto city councillor from 1982 to 1991.  He championed human rights, social justice, environmental protection, and the war against poverty.  Layton worked hard to alleviate homelessness in Toronto.  He was an early advocate for gay and lesbian rights, and began to fight for same-sex marriage rights years before other politicians did.

In 1991, Layton ran unsuccessfully to be mayor of Toronto. He then ran unsuccessfully for the federal NDP in the 1993 and 1997 federal elections.

Layton’s luck changed in 2003, when he was elected leader of the federal NDP.  Though the party establishment supported veteran MP Bill Blaikie, former party leader Ed Broadbent surprised his colleagues by supporting Layton.  Broadbent turned out to be prescient.

In 2004, Layton was elected MP for Toronto-Danforth.  He set to work quietly building his party’s base of support, including its base in Quebec. The federal NDP increased its seats in the House of Commons from 13 to 19.  He improved that seat total to 29 in 2006; to 37 in 2008; and to 103 in 2011. 

The 2011 election was an enormous surprise to almost all political pundits.  To the shock of everyone except Layton himself, the NDP won 59 of Quebec’s 75 seats, mostly at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois.  For the first time ever, the NDP became the Official Opposition in Ottawa.

Tragically, in his moment of greatest victory, Layton was struck with cancer.  He had earlier undergone treatment for prostate cancer.  He had hip surgery in 2011, and was forced to use a cane during the 2011 election.  However, he campaigned with astonishing energy, often leaving younger, healthier journalists and advisors exhausted. The cane became his symbol of courage and tenacity.  In July, he announced that he had to take a leave of absence to seek treatment for a second type of cancer.  He hoped to return to work in September.  Sadly, it was not to be.

Layton was known for his sincerity, warmth and optimistic nature.  Opinion polls consistently showed him to be more popular than his party.  Some polls rated him as the leader Canadians would most enjoy sharing a beer with.  His down-to-earth style made a particular impression in Quebec, where he became known as “le bon Jack”.

Tributes poured in from ordinary Canadians and officials of all political stripes.  These included kind words from Jewish community leaders.  David Koschitzky, Chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), commented: “Jack was a lifelong fighter for many causes dear to Canada’s Jewish community, working tirelessly for the most vulnerable among us to ensure that no family gets left behind.  We join with all Canadians in honouring the passing of a passionate advocate and pillar of our Parliament.”  CIFA announced the creation of a new Jack Layton Scholarship for Social Justice to be awarded annually to a deserving student.

B’nai Brith Canada CEO Frank Dimant praised Layton as “a man of integrity who brought an important voice to Canadian politics.” 

Layton always expressed a cautious hope for peace in the Middle East.  In an official statement posted on the federal NDP website on January 16, 2009, Layton commented: “New Democrats reaffirm our longstanding support for a two-state solution which ensures Israelis and Palestinians can live safely, side by side, in independent states with secure borders.” 

What impressed so many Canadians about Jack Layton was his lack of malice, even against political adversaries.  Many were also impressed by his spontaneity and sincerity.  He often spoke without notes; he always welcomed questions from journalists and voters; and his political pronouncements had a genuine and heartfelt quality that is rare in modern politics.  He also had a lively sense of humour and was not afraid to laugh at himself. 

No one will ever know how Jack Layton might have fared in the 2015 federal election.  However, if other politicians can learn from his example, and can emulate his honesty, integrity and compassion in their own political lives, he will have done a lasting service to Canadian democracy at all levels. 

Jack Layton will be sincerely missed by all Canadians.

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