August 2011, Week 4


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Tue, 23 Aug 2011 21:28:02 -0400
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Jack Layton, Leader of Canada's Opposition, the New
Democratic Party

Anne McIlroy
22 August 2011

Jack Layton, the leader of Canada's official opposition,
has died of cancer aged 61. Earlier this year, in May,
Layton led his left-of-centre New Democratic party (NDP)
to a historic victory in the federal election. The NDP
won a record number of seats (103, up from a previous
37), emerging as the second party to Stephen Harper's
triumphant Conservatives, and booting Michael
Ignatieff's Liberals into third place for the first time
since Canadian confederation in 1867. Just as
remarkably, Layton became the first anglophone to win
the province of Quebec against French-speaking

Layton was at the pinnacle of his career; no federal NDP
leader had ever been opposition leader in the party's
50-year history. But he looked gaunt and sounded weak in
July, when he announced that he was coping with cancer
for a second time. He was characteristically optimistic
about winning his fight and being back in the House of
Commons in September.

Layton was born into a political family in Montreal and
was raised in the small town of Hudson, Quebec. His
father, Robert Layton, was a Conservative cabinet
minister. Jack's paternal grandfather, Gilbert Layton,
was also a politician; Jack's great-grandfather, Philip
Layton, founded the Montreal Association for the Blind.

Layton attended Hudson high school and studied political
science at McGill University in Montreal and at York
University in Toronto. As a community organiser, he was
passionate about environmental policies, poverty,
homelessness and transport.

He worked as a teacher in the 1970s and served as a city
councillor in Toronto and as deputy mayor of Toronto. In
1991 he made an unsuccessful bid to become mayor. He was
elected leader of the NDP in 2003, and was elected to
the Commons for the first time in 2004. In the 2006
federal election, the NDP placed fourth, with 29 seats.
Two years later, they gained eight more seats in the

As NDP leader, Layton worked to secure benefits for the
unemployed and more funding for social services. He also
helped to shape the federal government's historic
apology for the residential school system that separated
aboriginal students from their families and sent them to
church-run institutions where many were beaten and
sexually abused.

Layton was shrewd and calculating, but also friendly and
outgoing. His easy smile and an optimistic view of life
led to his nickname, "Smiling Jack". He liked to ride
his bike to work and took pride in his moustache. He had
a real ability to connect with Canadians; poll after
poll showed that he was the political leader they would
most like to have a beer with. The former Canadian prime
minister Jean Chr├ętien said that Layton was a good
example of how politics can be a "noble profession". The
NDP's Paul Dewar added that Layton's heart was "as big
as a prairie sky", and that Layton had offered hope at a
time when many people were turned off by cynicism in

In his final press conference, Layton said he hoped to
return to the Commons to build "the country of our
hopes, of our dreams, of our optimism, our
determination, our values and our love".

In 1988, he married Olivia Chow, a fellow city
councillor in Toronto who was elected as an NDP member
of parliament in 2006. He is survived by Olivia and by
his children, Sarah and Mike, from his marriage to Sally

 John Gilbert Layton, politician, born 18 July 1950;
died 22 August 2011


Tribune for the powerless
By Rick Salutin Columnist
August 22, 2011

The event that caused Jack Layton to join the NDP
despite his family's deep Liberal-Conservative roots,
was the party's opposition, under Tommy Douglas's
leadership, to the imposition of military law in Quebec
in 1970. Jack was 20. A small group of radicals had
kidnapped two people in the name of a "free" Quebec.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared martial law and
tossed hundreds of people, almost none of them connected
with the kidnappings, in jail. To many onlookers it
seemed like a brazen attempt to intimidate and stifle
the rising, and in itself quite legitimate, movement for
Quebec independence.

This wasn't a socialist issue, or even left-wing. It was
a matter of civil rights. Some members in all parties
were appalled. But only the NDP, under Douglas, stood up
publicly. It was unpopular. They did it, knowing the

Jack would surely have called himself a socialist, then
and later. But I think it was this kind of battle for
justice, especially on larger social issues, that drew
him in. He seemed most at home speaking for those who
lacked the levers of wealth or power. (The comfortable,
of course, have a right to their rights. But they tend
to be well-represented in the public realm.) He liked
being a kind of tribune for the relatively powerless and
voiceless; it meshed with his flare for attention and
focus. For this reason I see him more as a man of the
left - almost in the sense of the French Revolution -
than a classical socialist. By the time he became active
in party politics, socialism wasn't much of an issue
anywhere, and it has become less so ever since. Justice
is another matter.

He was also a kind of action junkie; it suited his
penchant for trying to rectify injustice on behalf of
the overlooked and ignored. He liked being where the
debate was happening, and if he wasn't, he liked
bringing the debate over to where he thought it should
be. He was obsessive about this mission - I think both
terms are accurate - to represent those who needed a
voice. It's how he saw his role as an elected
representative. People who knew him say that if an
evening arrived when he had no meeting to attend or
address, he'd quickly check schedules and find one, or
several. He didn't much like spending time alone. This
may have jibed with some need for attention or even an
element of anxiety in his makeup. But it's hard to
imagine anyone committing themselves to politics who's
not driven by deep personal need. Otherwise why get in
and take the gaff? What matters is how productive you
can be with whatever it is that impels you.

So it's striking that his greatest political triumph -
becoming the first NDP leader of the opposition - came
when his legendary zest and activity had diminished, due
to illness. That may even have boosted his electoral
appeal. The cane and the pain slowed him down, made him
more normal. Perhaps they made him more reflective too,
which people sensed and could identify with. Life isn't
just about social action, it's also about individual
aloneness. A brush with mortality can make you look at
areas you've been trying to avoid - usually a good thing
and one that others notice. (There was also the
Quebecois dans la rue quality of his French, which
resonated brilliantly among Quebec voters.)

I wrote often about Jack over the years, usually
critically. I was bothered by what seemed like his
strong need for approval and praise. I have a preference
for "I don't give a crap" politicians. But maybe we're
just over-sensitive to signs in others of some of the
qualities we fear might exist in ourselves. I also
objected to his party's role in giving us the first
Harper minority (along with the loss of a groundbreaking
national child-care program) and then the first Harper
majority - by splitting votes with the Liberals,
especially in Ontario. But hell, if you're going to play
the election game, then you play it to win. You don't
pull your punches out of some altruistic concern that
you might help someone worse beat out someone not quite
as bad. You're in or you're out.

His reactions to what I wrote were always positive and
generous. I don't think this was just smart politics,
though there's no point in alienating the press. I think
it also sprang from his character: a belief he could
help bring people of basic good-will - which includes
most humans - together to build a better society. Maybe
he even thought there was something he could learn from
a little of the negativity he was so averse to in

The real test of a life, it seems to me, is not what you
are or what you do. It's how you change and grow.
Otherwise what's the point of living a life, which
occurs in time, rather than being a painting on the
wall: something that's done and finished and just sits
there to be admired. I think there's evidence he lived
that kind of learning curve, increasingly so toward the
end. His final letter, released Monday, shows an amazing
warmth, hopefulness, even a luminosity. Illness and
early death are nothing anyone would ask for but it
would be typical of his optimism and positive bent to
find whatever might be of value in them.

There was some grousing among NDPers when Jack's second
round of cancer was revealed. After all these years and
what we've gone through, and finally reached such a
point of success - we don't deserve this, etc. Well, of
course almost no one does deserve that kind of news. But
this is certain: you'd never have heard it from Jack.
More than anything else, he was not a whiner. Sometimes
he was so relentlessly a non-whiner that it was
irritating. But that could also be the quality that best
equipped him to be a uniquely successful leader of his
party and perhaps, though we'll never know, of his


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