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Obituary: Jack Layton

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John Gilbert "Jack" Layton was one of the most highly regarded progressive politicians in Canadian history. When he died on August 22, what followed was a massive outpouring of respect from different categories of citizens. Torontonians remembered his time on the city council, where he led New Democrats and independents to a controlling presence in the 1988 elections. Canadians definitely remember him from this past 2011 federal election; he led the New Democrat Party to 103 seats, more than double its previous high, and the NDP toppled the Liberal Party to become the official opposition.

What truly captures the wideness of respect for the man is the behaviour of opponents upon his death. Layton was given a state funeral, something never before afforded to any opposition leader who had not been a former Prime Minister. Rob Ford, long-time city council antithesis who is currently Toronto's Mayor, made what might be his first speech that didn't manage to grievously offend progressive Torontonians. This statement from a friend's Facebook feed sums up a more grassroots-level opinion on the matter: "RIP Jack Layton ... As a thorn in the side of my conservatives ... I would rather have won the battle at the polls rather than have mother nature intervene ... He was one election away from toppling the conservatives".

It might be hyperbole to say that he would have toppled the federal Conservatives in four years' time. However, Layton was a charismatic and resourceful political leader. His last big victory indicates such: the biggest gains were made in Quebec, where the NDP traditionally sees little success. This leap was a continuation of a previous election where he brought the seat numbers within six of Ed Broadbent's previous record. One might ask how a politician can become so effective, and the answer is found in his history and life.

Layton grew up in the thick of politics. His father was a Progressive Conservative MP, and his mother was the grand-niece of one of the founding fathers of Canada. His great-grandfather campaigned for disability pensions and founded the Montreal Association for the Blind. In his high school years, he was a student council president. He continued on that familiar path by studying political science at McGill University, and going on to obtain a PhD in the same field at York University, fairly close to a Toronto he would come to love.

The next step in his political life was to enter Toronto proper and become a professor at Ryerson University. He taught courses on urban affairs. He was known for sending students out of classrooms to become involved in political causes. During that time, he met former Mayor John Sewell who liked his teaching style and enticed Jack into politics.

Thus began Jack's life as a prominent urban activist and reformer. He campaigned to ban smoking in public places, but his strategy was to move one small step at a time so as not to drum up hostility from the public or from commerce. He chose elevators for a starting point and worked outward from there.

He supported the establishment of a single wind turbine on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition, for drivers on the busiest freeway to see. He wanted to make alternative energy visible. He also suggested giving retrofit loans to owners of commercial buildings, to create jobs and reduce energy costs. He supported people afflicted with HIV and AIDS before that movement had gained much momentum. Along the way, he met fellow progressive Olivia Chow, to whom he remained married for the rest of his life.

All this municipal work culminated in a failed run for Mayor in 1991. Like any great politician, he learned quickly from the failure: he changed his look and attitude, returned to teaching, and set his sights on federal politics. Even when the scope of his aim changed, he never lost sight of the importance of cities: in the interim between the failed mayoral campaign and his 2004 NDP leadership win, he gained prominence at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

The rest of the story is recent history. He successfully fought off prostate cancer, campaigning through the frailty that comes from surviving cancer treatments, only to announce later that a second unspecified cancer was not responding well to treatments. He took a final leave on July 28, 2011. When things looked their worst, he carefully penned a final letter to Canadians that was subsequently reprinted in many newspapers and online sources.

What he truly brought to the NDP and to left politics in Canada was an understanding of the Conservative playbook, and an imaginative response to such tactics. Like Ed Broadbent before him, he was the most popular and likable federal politician not to win the election, a man whom many centre-liberals may have secretly wished would lead the Liberal Party which they habitually trust more.

His son, Toronto city councillor Mike Layton, describes something Jack knew which every politician needs to understand: "What he taught was you have to base your politics on a set of values [...] You can't just move day to day from issue to issue, it's all based on your personal values and that should help guide everything you do in politics."

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on November 11, 2011.



Dear Friends,

Tens of thousands of Canadians have written to me in recent weeks to wish me well. I want to thank each and every one of you for your thoughtful, inspiring and often beautiful notes, cards and gifts. Your spirit and love have lit up my home, my spirit, and my determination.

Unfortunately my treatment has not worked out as I hoped. So I am giving this letter to my partner Olivia to share with you in the circumstance in which I cannot continue.

I recommend that Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmel continue her work as our interim leader until a permanent successor is elected.

I recommend the party hold a leadership vote as early as possible in the New Year, on approximately the same timelines as in 2003, so that our new leader has ample time to reconsolidate our team, renew our party and our program, and move forward towards the next election.

A few additional thoughts:

To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live their lives, I say this: please don’t be discouraged that my own journey hasn’t gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.

To the members of my party: we’ve done remarkable things together in the past eight years. It has been a privilege to lead the New Democratic Party and I am most grateful for your confidence, your support, and the endless hours of volunteer commitment you have devoted to our cause. There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause. But that cause is much bigger than any one leader. Answer them by recommitting with energy and determination to our work. Remember our proud history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind. Let’s continue to move forward. Let’s demonstrate in everything we do in the four years before us that we are ready to serve our beloved Canada as its next government.

To the members of our parliamentary caucus: I have been privileged to work with each and every one of you. Our caucus meetings were always the highlight of my week. It has been my role to ask a great deal from you. And now I am going to do so again. Canadians will be closely watching you in the months to come. Colleagues, I know you will make the tens of thousands of members of our party proud of you by demonstrating the same seamless teamwork and solidarity that has earned us the confidence of millions of Canadians in the recent election.

To my fellow Quebecers: On May 2nd, you made an historic decision. You decided that the way to replace Canada’s Conservative federal government with something better was by working together in partnership with progressive-minded Canadians across the country. You made the right decision then; it is still the right decision today; and it will be the right decision right through to the next election, when we will succeed, together. You have elected a superb team of New Democrats to Parliament. They are going to be doing remarkable things in the years to come to make this country better for us all.

To young Canadians: All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada. Young people have been a great source of inspiration for me. I have met and talked with so many of you about your dreams, your frustrations, and your ideas for change. More and more, you are engaging in politics because you want to change things for the better. Many of you have placed your trust in our party. As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.

And finally, to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.

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.

Not many blogs that deliver such consistently readable and interesting content as is on offer on this one, you have earned the short time it takes to express my admiration at your hard work. Bless you.