It’s extremely rare when a major politician dies in the middle of his term. It’s also unfortunate that Jack Layton dies soon after the biggest success for himself and his political party. Nevertheless his influence in Canadian politics will always be remembered.
John Gilbert Layton was born in Montreal on July 18, 1950 to a family with a huge political background. His mother Doris Steeves was a grand-niece to a Father of Confederation. His father Robert Layton was a Progressive Conservative MP who served as a Cabinet Minster during the Mulroney administration. His grandfather was a cabinet minister in Quebec parliament. His great-grandfather was an activist for the blind. Naturally he would follow in his family’s footsteps. He was elected student council of his high school and studied Political Science at McGill University. In 1969-1970 he was a member of the Quebec Youth Parliament. In 1970, the family moved to Toronto where he attended York University and received his PhD in Political Science. He became a professor at Ryerson University, was a prominent activist and wrote many books on political issues and his beliefs.
He first entered politics on a civic level. He was elected to Toronto City Council in 1982 and soon became one of the most outspoken members of the council and a leader of the left wing. He was one of the first advocates for rights for AIDS patients and spoke his opposition to the building of the Skydome and Toronto’s bid for the 1996 Summer Olympics. In 1985 he moved on to the Metropolitan Toronto council. In 1988 he became returned for the election to Toronto City Council. He not only won but his reformist coalition for which he headed gained control of City Council. In 1991, he made the move to run for mayor of Toronto. His opposition to the Olympic bid and the low popularity of the NDP party at the time caused him to lose the election. Layton would return to teaching and later founded an environmental consulting business, the Green Catalyst Group. He ran for the House of Commons twice in the 90’s and lost both times.
Then in January 2003 came the biggest breakthrough of his political career. He was elected leader of the federal NDP party. Before the 2004 election, Layton was already known for making some eyebrow-raising statements about the Liberal party led by Paul Martin shifting to being too right-wing. During the 2004 National Election, Layton accused the Liberal Party for the increase in homelessness and homeless deaths in Canada. Many people complained that it was negative campaigning. Layton caused another controversy during that election when he suggested the removal of the Clarity Act and allowing Quebec to declare independence upon a referendum vote. In that election the Layton-led NDP party had 15% of the popular vote, the highest in 15 years, and 19 seats in the House of Commons.
In the next federal election, in January 2006, Layton attempted to cast himself as the sole remaining champion of universal health care. Layton constantly repeated during the campaign to Canadian that they have a ‘third choice.’ Some conservative pundits mocked Layton and his stances. Some would paste Layton-styles moustaches on them and say things like ‘raise my taxes’ or ‘I’d like to pay higher gas prices.’ Layton also went all out in attacking the scandal-ridden Liberals at the time and pledged to use his minority clout to keep the Conservatives in check. The election resulted in 29 seats in the House of Commons for the NDP: 11 more than the previous election. Layton’s wife Olivia Chow was also elected to the House of Commons making them the first couple to be elected to the House.
During the 2008 Federal election, many were comparing Layton as trying to pass himself off as Canada’s Barack Obama. He shunned the comparisons and reminded people that he only simply shared the same views as him like the working class and the middle class. Layton also mentioned he told Obama and Hillary Clinton the North American Free Trade Agreement was hurting people on both sides of the border. Layton also spoke out about internet freedoms and his stance in favor of net neutrality, torrent sites, video-sharing sites and social networking sites. The NDP would go on to win a total of 37 seats in the House but would only be the fourth-most populous behind the Conservatives, Liberals and Bloc Quebecois. Shortly after the election in November 2008, Layton negotiated with Liberal leader Stephan Dion and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe on forming a coalition to replace the Conservatives as the government. Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded by suspending parliament until January 2009. After Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff signed a budgetary agreement that would end the coalition, Layton declared: “If you oppose Mr. Harper and you want a new government, I urge you to support the NDP.”
In 2011, a new national election was called as the Conservative party was defeated in a Vote of Non-Confidence for contempt; the first time in the history of the Commonwealth for a government to receive a Vote on Non-Confidence. That resulted in Prime Minister Harper dissolving parliament for a new national election. During the election, appeal for the NDP started slow but Layton’s NDP party soon increased greatly in popularity after the leadership debates. The NDP moved past the Liberals into second place in the polls behind the Conservatives and first in Quebec. Soon after his popularity rose, a smear campaign came about as a retired police officer stated he saw Layton naked in a massage parlor back in 1996 but didn’t charge him. Layton responded that he was just simply getting a massage. In the end, no charges were laid against Layton. In the election, held May 2, 2011, the NDP won 103 Seats. That was the highest-ever total of seats for the NDP party and made the NDP the Official Opposition party to the Commons for the first time ever with Layton as the official opposition leader.
One thing known to few was of Jack Layton’s illness and the severity of it. In February 2010, he announced he had prostate cancer and vowed to beat it and continue to pursue his duties as the leader of the NDP. On July 25, almost three months since the national election, he announced he would take a temporary leave to fight an unspecified newly diagnosed cancer. He announced he planned to return as leader of the NDP once the House of Commons was to be resumed September 19, 2011 and recommended NDP caucus chair Nycole Turmel serve as interim leader. On the morning on August 22, 2011, Jack Layton died at his Toronto home. He was 61.
Jack Layton was a unique politician. He came from a family who had a lot of political experience. He rallied and campaigned for causes that were popular with the left and he strongly believed in as well. As a leader of a national party, he brought ideas and spoke of issues in ways unheard of before by leading Canadian politicians. He brought ideas unheard of before in Canadian parliament. Overall he was one p[politician who believed in a better Canada and wasn’t afraid to speak out about it. After his death, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: “On behalf of all Canadians, I salute Jack’s contribution to public life, a contribution that will be sorely missed. I know one thing: Jack gave his fight against cancer everything he had. Indeed, Jack never backed down from any fight.”
As a fitting final tribute, Jack wrote a letter two days before his death. His family released the letter the day of his death that ended with these final words:
“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.”
WIKIPEDIA: Jack Layton. Wikipedia.com. 2011. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Layton>