Leader of Canada's opposition party dies

Jack Layton, the feisty leader of Canada's opposition party who was at the height of his political career, died today after a battle with cancer. He was 61.

The New Democrat party issued a statement just weeks after a gaunt Mr Layton held a news conference to announce he was fighting a second bout of cancer.

The party said Mr Layton died peacefully at his Toronto home, surrounded by family and loved ones.

Mr Layton led his party to an historic win after his union-backed party took 103 seats, up from a previous 37, in the May federal election, gaining official opposition status for the first time in the party's 50-year history.

He began the campaign just five weeks just after recovering from hip surgery which he said was unrelated to the cancer. He carried a cane and hobbled throughout. His health became an issue at start of the campaign, but Mr Layton looked increasingly healthy and energised as the campaign progressed.

Mr Layton announced in February 2010 that he had been battling prostate cancer. He lost a considerable amount of weight and his voice was very weak when he said in July that his battle with prostate cancer was going well but that recent tests showed he had a new form of cancer.

His appearance shocked Canadians, who just a month before saw an energised Mr Layton lead his party to the official opposition status. The New Democrats' gains were attributed to Mr Layton's folksy, upbeat message.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he was deeply saddened by Mr Layton's death.

"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. On behalf of all Canadians, I salute Jack's contribution to public life, a contribution that will be sorely missed," he said.

Born in Montreal, Mr Layton was the son of a former federal Progressive Conservative cabinet minister and the grandson of a prominent provincial politician in Quebec. He had said though his father was a conservative, he truly cared about those less well off.

Mr Layton was a career politician, a former longtime city councillor known to work tirelessly on behalf of the poor and homeless. He ran for mayor in 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.

New Democrat MP Libby Davies said Canadians came to love Mr Layton.

"He gave his life for this country," Davies said. "His commitment to social justice and equality and a better Canada in the world and in home, I think that's how people saw him, they saw him as someone who deeply, deeply cared for people."

US Ambassador David Jacobson to Canada expressed sorrow on behalf of the American people.

"I will never forget the image of Jack campaigning as the happy warrior. His energy, enthusiasm and passion for politics and for the Canadian people were undeniable," Jacobson said in a statement.

Mr Layton was married to Hong Kong-born Olivia Chow, also a former Toronto city councillor, and now the New Democrat Parliament member for a downtown Toronto district. He has two children, Sarah and Mike, from a previous marriage. Mike is now a Toronto city councillor.