Jack Layton 1950-2011: Gone but not forgotten

by Cory Wilkins

Jack Layton never backed down from any fight, political or otherwise.

Which is why there is something cruelly ironic in that, following all the electorate build up and maneuvering by Layton and the New Democrats, the former NDP leader won’t realize the fruit of his efforts.

Recall the May 2 federal election, when the New Democrats completed a historic climb that saw the political left grab an additional 67 seats, up from 36 to 103 representatives.

With that, it was a shocking revelation when a gaunt, frail-looking, and weak-voiced Layton announced to Canadians on July 25 his latest health scare: a second go-around with cancer.

“Test results indicate that I have a new, non-prostate cancer that will require further treatment. I will therefore be taking a temporary leave of absence as leader of the New Democratic Party,” Layton said from the podium. “I’m going to fight this cancer now so I can be back to fight for families when Parliament resumes [on September 19].”

Less than one month later, on August 22, the inspirational Layton would succumb to a yet-to-be-announced cancer. He was 61.

Outpouring from Canadians

Layton’s death is the perhaps the most melancholy to hit the Canadian political scene since the passing of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 2000.

And like Trudeau, Layton was received in a state funeral for the many Canadians in mourning.

It’s a recognition that is more often reserved for Canadian Prime Ministers or Governor Generals—not the Leader of the Official Opposition—however it was a motion that Prime Minister Stephen Harper felt was most appropriate, given Layton’s impact and popularity.

Thousands of Canadians sent their support to Layton, lying-in-state in both Toronto and at Parliament Hill, not to mention the heartfelt chalk-written condolences that lined Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, home to Toronto City Hall, and of course the home city of Layton’s MP riding. Layton’s state funeral was a public mourning for a politician best known for his public life.

Layton was the every man, a political rarity who was relatable to any Canadian. In fact, it was Layton’s human touch that drove many young Canadians to the ballot box for the first time on May 2.

The determined Layton, while not often agreeable, was lauded for his political persistence, always focusing on party message and committed to social and New Democratic values. And it’s because of that ambition that Layton’s NDP saw so much growth since he took leadership of the party in 2003. And it’s because of Layton’s death why today the future of the NDP remains undecided.

The power of Jack

The popularity gained by the NDP, and more specifically by the charismatic Layton, during the 2011 federal campaign cannot be ignored. To say that Layton’s New Democratic contribution will be missed is an understatement. In the interim, Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmel takes leadership of the NDP.

Without Layton, the NDP—the party in which its leader has been most influential—may not be able to maintain the momentum it gained leading up to the May 2 vote. So what does it mean for the NDP? Losing their leader, notably, is a huge impact. Like Layton on July 25, the NDP has lost its voice, the biggest component that led to the party’s pre-election popularity surge.

Layton and the NDP’s remarkable campaigning paid off in a significant way, an astonishing representation gain to not only become the Official Opposition, but in the process toppling the Liberal Party and decimating the Bloc Quebecois to become the most powerful federal political party in the Province of Quebec.
Layton said from the podium on May 2, “Canadians have asked the NDP to take on more responsibility in Parliament. For the first time in our history, we are asked to serve as Canada’s Official Opposition. I’ve always favoured proposition over opposition, but we will oppose the government when it is off track.”

Identity of the NDP

“Young Canadians are a source of hope for our country’s future,” Layton exclaimed on May 2. “We can build the Canada we want, worthy of the hopes and dreams of those young Canadians who said ‘no’ the politics of usual and ‘yes’ to a Canada where anything is possible.”

Layton’s impact on the New Democratic Party was more than the results—growing the party from 13 seats to 103 today—as it was more so the identity and relevant status the NDP developed under Leader Layton.

“When I last spoke with Jack following his announcement in July, I wished him well and he told me he’d be seeing me in the House of Commons in the fall.

This, sadly, will no longer come to pass,” Harper said in a statement. “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.”

May our mustachioed friend rest in peace.