Jack Layton: Canadian politician who became leader of the opposition after revitalising the NDP

Jack Layton, a career politician, was the charismatic leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada's new opposition party. With his boundless energy and folksy yet feisty no-nonsense approach, he had battled cancer and a hip replacement to lead his left-of-centre party to an historic victory in last May's federal election. He had brought hope and optimism to federal politics and was arguably at the height of his political career.

The union-backed NDP took a record 103 seats, up from a previous 37, and crushed Michael Ignatieff's Liberal Party (34 seats) to become the official opposition in the Commons for the first time in their 50-year history. Further history was made in French-speaking Quebec, where the party stunned Canadians and won 59 of the province's 75 seats, making Layton the first Anglophone to enjoy such unprecedented success; this devastating victory effectively eliminated the Bloc Québécois (a party devoted to Quebec's separation) from Parliament, leaving it without status as a recognised party.

During the election campaign, thanks to his friendly and outgoing personality, Layton was portrayed as "Smilin' Jack" and "Le bon Jack" in the media, or just "Jack" on his party's campaign advertisements. He was a rassembleur, and, with his relaxed approach, bringing people together was one of his great talents; he had a real ability to connect with his fellow Canadians.

Layton and the NDP had changed their campaign approach, eschewing anger and attack ads, which focus groups knew women voters disliked. The NDP shed the last of their overtly socialist positions and adopted a platform aimed more at attracting middle-class voters, which angered some of the party's left wing. Layton and his team learned from previous elections and professionalised the NDP; they made it a much more research-driven, voter-focused and tactically innovative political organisation. He offered voters an alternative political agenda to the Conservatives that stepped outside the mantra of tax-cutting and balanced budgets and talked about better pensions, education, healthcare and the wrongs of economic inequality – as well as the environment and climate change. The NDP also embarked upon the largest advertising campaign in its history, focusing on the Government's healthcare record.

Born into a political family in Montreal, Canada on 18 July 1950, John Gilbert "Jack" Layton was the son of Doris Elizabeth (née Steeves), a grand-niece of William Steeves, a Father of Confederation, and Robert Layton, a Progressive Conservative MP and cabinet minister. His grandfather was Gilbert Layton, a cabinet minister in the 1930s Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis in Quebec, who subsequently resigned over the government's lack of support for Canada's participation in the Second World War. His great-grandfather, Philip Layton, who emigrated from England, was a blind piano dealer in Montreal and established the Montreal Association for the Blind.

Layton grew up in the affluent, mainly English-speaking suburb of Hudson. Politics was in his blood. From student-council president at Hudson High School he went on to study political science at McGill University, Montreal, before completing his doctorate at York University, Toronto. In 1969, prior to his university education, Layton had married his high-school sweetheart, Sally Halford, with whom he had two children, Mike and Sarah.

In 1969/70, he was the Prime Minister of the Quebec Youth Parliament. He later served as a professor at Ryerson University, Toronto, teaching city politics to students from its journalism school. Layton enjoyed many interests, including cycling, was an accomplished musician and also wrote a number of books.

A Quebec native, Layton was an activist and community organiser in Toronto, campaigning on issues such as Aids and violence against women. He was elected to Toronto City Council in 1981 and spent 20 years as a thorn in the side of conservative mayors. He continued to work tirelessly on behalf of the poor and homeless and was a champion of environmental and transport issues. He ran twice for mayor of Toronto and lost in 1991 after being criticised for living in subsidised housing and for opposing Toronto's ultimately failed bid for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Layton became leader of the NDP in January 2003; in 2004 he became an MP and led the NDP to a 15 per cent popular vote, its highest in 16 years, although it only gained 19 seats in the House of Commons. He then led the party to 29 federal seats in the 2006 election, which increased to 37 in 2008.

For all his history-making during the May 2011 elections, Layton knew his real challenge lay ahead, keeping his caucus united and presenting the NDP as a government-in-waiting rather than as the socialist hordes; the first part was a prerequisite for the second. Layton knew that caucus management was his biggest challenge: bringing the Quebecers together with the party's 44 MPs from the rest of Canada, who had very different ideas.

However, within weeks of his greatest triumph, on 25 July, Layton announced that after having apparently beaten prostate cancer, he had now been diagnosed with a "non-prostate cancer" which required him to temporarily step aside as leader of the NDP in order to fight it. His announcement and his rapid weight loss and deteriorating physical condition shocked Canadians.

Layton received praise from all quarters of the political spectrum. He was said by many to have brought a sense of decency, integrity and optimism to an arena where many were turned off by cynicism and scepticism in politics. Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, said that Layton will be remembered "for the force of his personality and his dedication to public life. We have all lost an engaging personality and a man of strong principles."

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called Layton an "honourable, decent, loyal" man. "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." Indeed, Layton will be remembered for transforming a dysfunctional four-party minority House into a functional three-party majority Parliament – as well as for his effective, down-to-earth brand of progressive politics.

His rise from the relative obscurity of Toronto's municipal government to become, in electoral terms, the most successful national leader in the 78-year history of the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a socialist party formed during the Great Depression)-NDP franchise was remarkable.

In an open letter, Layton addressed Canadians: "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."

Martin Childs

Jack Layton, politician: born Montreal, Canada 18 July 1950; married first 1969 Sally Halford (divorced 1983, one son, one daughter), second 1988 Olivia Chow; died Toronto, Canada 22 August 2011.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Sport
premier league
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Fury's Spring/Summer 2015 London Fashion Week roundup
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
News
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam