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When the Liberals fell to third place in the House of Commons, they gave up their Opposition Status. That spot was taken by the New Democratic Party, which had ridden an Orange Wave in Quebec to become the Official Opposition for the first time in its history.
At the head of that party was one of the most popular politicians in recent memory, Jack Layton.
The story of Jack Layton begins on July 18, 1950, in Montreal. The son of Robert Layton, a Quebec Liberal, politics was something always around Layton as he grew up in nearby Hudson, a large Anglophone community in Quebec. Layton’s grandfather was Gilbert Layton, who served as a minister without a portfolio in the Quebec Legislature. His great-granduncle, William Steeves, was a Father of Confederation and his great-grandfather was Philip Layton, who founded the Montreal Association for the Blind.
During Layton’s time in high school, he would serve as the president of the student’s union and the yearbook predicted he would become a politician.
As a young man, he would spend a lot of time at the Hudson Yacht Club, where his parents owned an 18-foot boat. At the time, Hudson was three-quarters Anglophone, and French-speaking families were not allowed in the club. Layton would eventually become the club’s junior commodore and he used this position to fix this inequality after seeing French children cooling off in the polluted river. Layton would begin to go through the rule book to find out why the French kids couldn’t come to the club pool. He would say in 2011 quote:
“Buried in the rules was that everybody can bring one guest except the junior commodore, who can bring more than one. No limit was proscribed. So, every kid who wasn’t a member, I signed in.”
The next day, Layton was called to the club and given a dressing down by management. He would say quote:
“I was scared but I was upset because I thought they were judging these French kids.”
Management then threatened to terminate the youth club, and Layton would respond quote:
“You can’t disband it, we’re cancelling it”
From 1969 to 1970, he served as the prime minister of the Quebec Youth Parliament. At one point, he and a friend went to Alberta for a National Youth Parliament. They then cashed in their return tickets, hitchhiked to Vancouver and slept in Stanley Park before hitchhiking back home.
Also in 1969, Layton married his high school sweetheart Sally Halford. The couple would have two children, Mike and Sarah.
In 1970, Layton would graduate from McGill University with a degree in political science. He then moved to Toronto to attend York University where he would then earn his masters in 1971 and a PhD in 1984. His PhD thesis was written on globalization.
In 1972, Layton would get involved in civic politics in Toronto, serving as a voter-contract organizer for Michael Goldrick. He would say quote:
In 1974, Layton became a professor at Ryerson University and would spend the next decade teaching there, as well as at the University of Toronto. An activist inspired to be involved in various causes, he would write a book on general public policy during that time, as well as Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis.
With politics in his blood, Layton would feel its call and would begin his first steps into politics in 1982. That year, he would be elected to Toronto City Council serving until 1991. During that time, he served on the Metropolitan Toronto Council from 1985 to 1988. In the 1982 election, he defeated incumbent Gordon Chong and became one of the most outspoken members of council, including being a vocal opponent of the SkyDome project.
He quickly became known for his ability to lure in TV cameras and generate headlines. He would ride his bike to nearly every event in the city and he became a prominent face on council, much to the annoyance of some of his fellow councilors. At one point he was charged with trespassing for handing out pamphlets at Eaton Centre in support of a unionization drive. Those charges were dropped on the grounds of freedom of expression. Once, he called the entire city council corrupt and when he was pressed to support the statement, he used Websters Dictionary to define corrupt as deteriorated from the normal standard.
One year after he was elected to council, Layton and his wife Sally would divorce.
Two years later, he would meet Olivia Chow at an auction in which he was serving as the auctioneer and Chow was the interpreter for the Cantonese language observers. They soon realized they were both candidates in the upcoming civic election and they decided to go for lunch.
Three weeks after the auction, they had their first date. When they started dating, Chow’s mother did not approve of Layton. In an effort to win her over, he would attempt to thank her for dinner by speaking Cantonese. Unfortunately, he accidently said “Thank you for the good sex”.
Layton would say later quote:
“My faux pas broke the ice completely. We’ve been good buddies ever since.”
On July 9, 1988, Chow and Layton would marry on Algonquin Island.
Around the same time that Layton was rising in politics in the 1980s, his father Robert would join the Progressive Conservative Party and was elected to Parliament in the 1984 election. He would serve until 1993 when he retired from politics upon his diagnosis with prostate cancer. During his time in Parliament, Layton was the Minister of State for Mines from 1984 to 1986.
In 1985, Layton would change his political style after going to meet one of his brothers at a downtown bar. He would say quote:
“He’s introducing me to his buddies and one of them, he’s had several beers, says “Oh, you’re Jack Layton. I thought your name was But Jack Layton. You know, you read the paper, the mayor proposes this but Jack Layton or They want to do this but Jack Layton. The jibe stung. I was opposing things.”
Layton began to try and be a more constructive member of council who proposed rather than opposed.
Layton was known for having unkempt hair and wearing blue jeans to council meetings but in 1991, he decided to run for mayor, and he began to change his image. He would abandon his glasses and wear contact lenses, and he started to wear suits rather than blue jeans. With his decision to run, he became the first official NDP candidate to run for mayor. Unfortunately, the provincial NDP government of Bob Rae was unpopular at the time, and many criticized Layton for opposing Toronto’s bid to host the 1996 Olympics. On Nov. 12, Layton lost the election by a considerable margin.
That same month, he would co-found the White Ribbon Campaign, which was made up of men working to end male violence against women. He would also found the Green Catalyst Group, which was an environmental consulting business.
In 1993, Layton would run for Parliament for the first time as an NDP candidate but would not win. In 1997, he tried again but once again was unable to win the election in his riding.
Layton would return to municipal politics in 1994 as a councilor of the Metropolitan Toronto Council, serving until 2003.
Layton was known for his love of Star Trek and could be seen wearing a tailor-made Starfleet uniform at Star Trek Conventions, including in one famous photo from 1991. He also enjoyed playing music at gatherings. At one point, when he was running to be the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, he would invite everyone to his hotel room for an impromptu concert.
Alberta NDP leader Brain Mason would say quote:
“He would gather people together in his hotel room and play the guitar and get everybody singing old folk songs from the 1960s. He just got people involved, just with his personality, not his politics.”
In 2003, Layton decided to make another run at federal politics. Without a seat in Parliament, Layton made the decision to run for the leadership of the federal NDP. Layton would run on the fact that he was a former president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and was abreast on national issues, which he could bring to the national stage. Rather than court existing members, Layton worked at bringing in new members to the party, which would help bolster the party and his support base at the same time.
This leadership election was the first to be conducted based on a one-member, one vote system. It was also the first election in Canadian history to allow Internet voting. Layton would begin his election campaign on July 22, 2002, and quickly gained several big-name endorsements, including that of former NDP leader Ed Broadbent.
In a result that shocked many, Layton won the leadership race on the first ballot with 51.4 per cent of the vote, and over double the votes of the next nearest challenger. In the process, he beat five other challengers including three who were currently sitting Members of Parliament.
Layton was able to win over voters from both the established arm of the party and the left-wing part. For many, the win by Layton was seen as a signal that party members were more united and ready to move farther to the left, away from the Liberals who were left centre.
Suddenly on the national stage, Layton’s charisma and energy was immediately popular with voters and his party quickly started to rise in the polls.
Rather than run in a by-election, as was tradition, Layton chose to wait until the federal election so he could run in Toronto-Danforth.
Even not being in the House of Commons, Layton was making nationwide news for his attacks on Prime Minister Paul Martin, calling him a Conservative, and stating the Liberal Party was more right-wing now. By the end of 2003, Layton was helping the NDP poll higher than the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance.
A year after winning leadership, Layton was heading into his first election on June 28, 2004.
The party was polling at the same level it did during its 1980s successes. The campaign would focus on gaining seats in urban centres in Canada, and the party’s platform focused on catering to those regions, while Layton would spend his time mostly in the areas of Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa and Winnipeg. During one stop in Toronto, Layton would place the blame of homeless deaths directly on Martin, stating quote:
“The deaths due to homelessness in this city took a rapid rise immediately after Paul Martin cancelled the affordable housing program and their names stand in testimony to the neglect that has reigned on our city.”
The remark would result in the Liberals demanding an apology from Layton.
The election was a success for Layton and the NDP. For one, Layton was elected to Parliament in the riding of Toronto Danforth. As well, the party doubled its share of the vote count to 15.7 per cent and the party’s seat count went to 19.
After the election, there was talk between Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe of creating a coalition government with Layton and the NDP. The three leaders appeared in a joint press conference expressing their intent to co-operate on changing parliamentary rules. A month later, Layton would walk out on talks with Harper and Duceppe, accusing them of trying to replace Paul Martin with Harper as prime minister.
The NDP was now a stronger party in the House of Commons since the Liberals had won their first minority government since 1972. This necessitated the need for support from the NDP to keep the government from falling. Between 2004 and 2005, the NDP were able to get the Liberal government to spend more money on infrastructure and social programs, blocked the government’s involvement in the US missile defense system and helped ensure the passing of same-sex marriage legislation.
Due to Layton’s constructive approach in Parliament, his profile rose in the country, and he became more popular as a result.
Heading into the 2006 election, the NDP and Layton were hoping for larger gains from the last election. Attacks would start almost immediately against Layton. Mike Klander, a vice-president of the Ontario wing of the federal Liberals would compare Layton’s wife Olivia to a Chow Chow dog and he would call Layton an a-hole.
Through the campaign, Layton put himself on record as the champion of universal healthcare. Public opinion polls also found that Canadians saw Layton as the most appealing and charismatic of the leaders. Layton would tell Canadians quote:
“Canadians have a third choice.”
Layton would also distance his party from the Liberals by attacking the Liberals over their scandals. Layton believed that the NDP could have power in the House of Commons by keeping a likely Conservative minority in check.
In the January 23, 2006, election, the NDP increased their seat count by 11, reaching 29 seats. Layton’s wife Olivia was also elected in that election, helping to make her and Layton a powerful couple in national politics. They were also the second husband-wife team in Canadian Parliament history
A leadership convention was held soon after the election and Layton received an approval rating of 90 per cent from his party.
With the Conservatives now in power with a minority government, they turned to the NDP for support to keep the government from falling. Once again, with more power in Parliament, Layton and the NDP were able to make amendments to increase the strength of the Clean Air Act. He did this by stating he would move a motion of non-confidence against the government unless the bill was improved. Harper agreed and it was passed on Nov. 19, 2006. He also pushed the government to apologize to the Indigenous for residential schools, which it did in 2008. Before delivering the apology, Harper would thank Layton.
The government would eventually fall, and Layton would go into his third election in four years.
The NDP, which had previously campaigned as an alternative choice to the Liberals and Conservative without a plan to get elected, would shift gears this election and Jack Layton would state that he was campaigning for the position of prime minister.
Layton would say at one campaign stop quote:
In the first week of the campaign, Layton seemed to be everywhere. The charter jet he used would travel 13,484 kilometres, touching down in 11 cities.
Some critics would say that Layton was trying to be Barack Obama after giving a speech similar to his. Layton would deny this stating quote:
“I mean, I am a lot shorter than he is. He is a brilliant orator. I’m never going to claim to be that. But what I have noticed is that the key issues faced by the American middle class, the working people of the US and their concerns about their families are awfully similar to the issues that I hear in Canada.”
Bob Rae, now with the Liberal Party, would write on his blog quote:
“Jack Layton thinks he is Obama. What a joke. He is Ralph Nader.”
Originally, Layton, along with Harper and Duceppe, opposed including Green Party leader Elizabeth May in the televised leader debates, but he would change his stance after it drew criticism from his own party. He would state quote:
“This whole issue of debating about the debate has become a distraction to the real debate that needs to happen. I have only one condition for this debate and that is that the prime minister is there.”
In the October 14, 2008, election, the NDP would continue their gains, rising another seven seats to reach 30.
On Dec. 1, 2008, the three opposition leaders would sign an accord that laid down the basis for a coalition government against the Conservatives. The proposed structure would give the NDP six cabinet seats. The Bloc Quebecois would not formally be a part of the coalition until 2011.
Into 2009, Layton continually opposed the Harper government, pledging that the NDP would vote against the Conservative budget. The Liberals would support the budget though, preventing an election. Layton would state quote:
“Today we have learned that you can’t trust Mr. Ignatieff to oppose Mr. Harper. If you oppose Mr. Harper and you want a new government, I urge you to support the NDP.”
Later that year, 89.25 per cent of the NDP party voted against holding a leadership convention to replace Layton.
Using his party’s increased power, Layton introduced the Climate Change Accountability Act, which aimed to make Canada the first country to adopt scientific targets to cut climate-change emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.
On Feb. 5, 2010, Layton announced he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
In 2011, the government once again fell, and Layton went into his fourth election since 2004. This election would be much different for his party though.
Layton wasted no time in getting on the campaign trail, visiting Ottawa on the first day of the campaign, and then going to Edmonton later that same day. Some questioned if Layton was healthy enough to lead the party in the election due to his recent hip surgery but Layton would insist, he was healthy enough to lead.
The NDP would have an expansive platform that promised to cap credit card rates, ban all forms of usage based billing by internet service providers, a doubling of the Canada Pension Plan benefits, a $4,500 job creation tax credit to all businesses per new hire, hiring 2,500 more police officers to patrol streets, and a $30 billion spending platform and a promise to balance the budget in four years.
On April 8, the NDP were polling at 13.2 per cent, but on April 16, the party had reached 25 per cent in the polls. The surge began in Quebec, with the NDP beginning to surpass the Bloc Quebecois, and then surging throughout Canada. With the NDP suddenly surging ahead, the attacks of all the other parties turned towards the party in an effort to stem its sudden surge in popularity.
By April 9, polls still had the Conservatives with a commanding lead of 41 per cent, while the Liberals had dipped to 26 per cent and the NDP were still rising at 19 per cent.
Two weeks later on April 22, the Conservatives would be cruising to a majority government with 43 per cent, while the NDP sat at 24 per cent. The Liberals, in contrast, fell to 21 per cent
On April 29, 2011, only days before the election, a retired police officer stated that he had found Layton naked in a massage parlour when police, looking for underage prostitutes raided the establishment in the mid-1990s. No charges were laid, and Layton said there was no wrongdoing as he had simply went for a massage at a community clinic and did not return after police advised him not to. Gilles Duceppe dismissed the claim as well, while Ignatieff and Harper would not comment on the report. Many people criticized the story as a blatant smear campaign against Layton due to the surging popularity of the NDP. A poll done after the story came out found that the public opinion of Layton had gone from 80 per cent to 97 per cent, beating both Harper and Ignatieff. The polling company believed that this improvement was due to sympathy for Layton, feeling he was being unfairly maligned.
Olivia Chow, wife of Layton, would state, quote:
“Sixteen years ago, my husband went for a massage at a massage clinic that is registered with the City of Toronto. He exercises regularly. He was and remains in great shape and he needed a massage. No one was more surprised than my husband when the police informed him of allegation of potential wrongdoing at this establishment.”
The same day that story broke, the Conservatives sat at 38 per cent, while the NDP had 33 per cent and the Liberals had collapsed to 18 per cent.
In the May 2, 2011, the Orange Crush swept through Quebec, winning 59 of 75 seats and reducing the Bloc Quebecois to only four seats. The NDP finished with its most seats in the history of the party when it surged ahead with a 67-seat gain that earned the party 103 seats in the House of Commons, making it the Official Opposition. This was the first time a non-Liberal or Conservative party was not the Official Opposition since the Bloc Quebecois in 1993. The NDP would have representatives in eight provinces, and even though it elected no one in Saskatchewan, still had one-third of the vote there.
Layton would state upon his party’s result, quote:
This high point would come at a cost it seemed to Layton, who had beaten cancer only a year previous. He had hit the campaign trail with high enthusiasm and vigor. Throughout the campaign, those around him saw changes. He was perspiring more and complained of pain and stiffness, which most attributed to his hip surgery and his busy schedule. Then he began to lose weight and tests were scheduled for after the election.
Parliament reconvened on June 2 and Layton would take his seat as the Leader of the Opposition. On June 24, he was supposed to take part in the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day Parade in Montreal, but he told his press secretary he couldn’t walk the route. Even with the pain he was dealing with, Layton would lead a filibuster over back-to-work legislation for Canada Post, standing and speaking for an entire hour on June 23.
On July 25, 2011, he announced he would be taking a temporary leave from his duties as he was now fighting a second cancer.
He would state he would be back in the House of Commons by the time it resumed on Sept. 19, 2011.
On Aug. 22, 2011, at 4:45 a.m., Layton died in his home, becoming the first Opposition leader since Sir Wilfrid Laurier to die while in office.
Throughout the nation, there was an outpouring of grief.
In his last letter, written to NDP supporters, Layton had said quote:
“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 will change the world.”
There was a large outpouring of grief in Canada over the news of Layton’s death. A spontaneous vigil in Montreal drew hundreds of people the day he died, all holding candles to remember Layton. In Alberta, another candlelight vigil was held on the steps of the provincial legislature.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper would say Layton would be remembered for quote:
“The force of his personality and his dedication to public life. We have all lost an engaging personality and a man of strong principles.”
Harper would also speak of how Layton was a natural musician and the two of them had always talked of playing together since Harper could play the piano. Harper would state quote:
Bob Rae, the interim leader of the Liberal Party, would state quote:
“The upbeat thing that you saw, the media saw, that the Canadian public saw, was not any different from what I saw, even in private.”
Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien would state quote:
“He worked extremely hard for a long, long period of time, and just before he passed away, he had for his party a fantastic success. It is a big loss for the NDP and a very big loss for Canada too.”
Another former prime minister, Brian Mulroney, would say of Layton quote:
“I think history will remember his historic achievement of transforming the NDP from, really, a Prairie party, in many ways, into a genuine national party with tremendous achievement in Quebec.”
On Aug. 25 and 26, a state funeral was held for Layton. He was the first Official Opposition leader to be given a state funeral when one was not required. Typically, state funerals were reserved prime ministers, cabinet ministers and governors general who died in office. Layton would be the first Opposition leader who never led a government to be given a state funeral. Prime Minister Harper had made the offer for a state funeral to Olivia Chow, and she accepted. Through the two days, thousands of people came through to honour Layton.
The flag on Parliament Hill’s Peace Tower was also put at half-mast in honour of Layton.
At his state funeral, Michael Ignatieff, former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Governor General David Johnston and Prime Minister Stephen Harper all attended.
After his funeral, Layton was cremated. A portion of his ashes were put under a jack pine that was planted on Toronto Island in his honour. Another portion was put on the Layton family plot in the St. Charles United Church in Hudson, Quebec. A third portion was scattered under a memorial sculpted by Chow on the first anniversary of Layton’s death.
Layton has been honoured extensively in Canada since his death. The Jack Layton Ferry Terminal in Toronto opened in 2013, and a bronze statue of Layton riding a tandem bicycle was installed there. Jack Layton Way in Toronto was also named for him in 2013. Ryerson University created the Jack Layton Chair in the Department of Politics and Public Administration. Pac Jack-Layton, in his hometown was named for him in 2012. The national headquarters of the federal NDP is also named the Jack Layton Building.
In 2021, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh proposed changing the name of Toronto-Danforth to Danforth-Layton to honour him.
Singh would say quote:
“I saw him as a happy warrior. I saw him as someone who gave his whole heart because he believed in people. He believed in fighting for them.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Now Toronto, CTV, CBC, Macleans, Wikipedia, NDP.ca, Montreal Gazette, Calgary Herald, National Post,