Jack Layton, Canada’s leader of the Official Opposition, was a modern 21st-century social democrat in a conservative era, who knew that the most effective response to his opponents was the politics of relentless optimism and sunny hope.
It was a natural manifestation of a warm and gregarious personality, but also a demeanour he deliberately cultivated in his electoral and parliamentary confrontations with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
The leader of the federal New Democratic Party became portrayed as “Smilin’ Jack” and “Le bon Jack” in the media, or just “Jack” on his party’s campaign advertisements. Pundits and political scientists were frequently skeptical when he talked about taking his perennially third- and fourth-place party into government and himself into the high office of prime minister.
And yet underneath the public persona was a highly intelligent political theorist, a doctor of political science and former professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University, who had given careful thought to analyzing the success of what he called the conservative playbook and how he could make an end-run around it to win over the hearts and minds of Canadian voters.
John Gilbert (Jack) Layton was born on July 18, 1950, in Montreal, and raised in the affluent suburb of Hudson. His parents were Robert Layton and Doris Elizabeth (née Steeves). His grandfather, Gilbert Layton, had been a cabinet minister in the conservative Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis, who resigned over the government’s lack of support for Canada’s participation in the Second World War. His father, Robert, was a cabinet minister in the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney.
Jack grew up to have an athlete’s strut and a powerful muscular build from cycling, weight-training and competitive swimming. His mustache was a trademark, along with his habit of stroking it as he talked with the thumb and forefinger of one hand.
He studied political science at McGill University and at age 19 married his high school girlfriend, Sally Halford, with whom he had two children. He became prime minister of Quebec’s youth parliament. After graduating from McGill, he moved to Toronto to do a PhD in political science at York.
His marriage failed in 1983. Five years later he married Toronto school trustee Olivia Chow, who subsequently joined him as an elected member of city council and then Parliament.
Layton was first enticed into elected politics in 1982 by former Toronto mayor John Sewell, who was looking for a reformist partner to run for city council with him in one of the city’s then two-councillor wards.
Sewell was drawn to Layton in part because of the teaching methods he employed in his political science courses on urban affairs. He sent his students out of the classroom to get involved in political causes. He also had close ties with leading figures of the city’s progressive element on council and had written books on urban issues such as homelessness.
Sewell, who received a note from Layton just two days before he died, said Layton brought three gifts into politics: an overwhelming energy, an ability to think of imaginative solutions and a skill – which became more evident when he got to Ottawa – at helping people find common ground.
Once elected to council, for example, he began a campaign to ban smoking in public places – one small step at a time so as not to ignite insurmountable public and commercial hostility. He started with elevators, and went from there.
He began his campaign to support alternative energy sources by getting the city to establish a single, very visible wind turbine on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds beside the busiest freeway into downtown. He came up with the idea of giving owners of commercial buildings retrofit loans, which created jobs and reduced energy costs. He was an early voice for the support of those afflicted with HIV-AIDS.
He quickly became seen as leader of the progressive group on council, not entirely to his benefit. Some of his allies quietly – and not-so-quietly – resented his outstanding talent at garnering media attention and what were described as his “boastful antics.”
He ran for mayor in 1991, trading in his jeans, long hair and owlish glasses for suits, a trimmed coif and contact lenses. But a substantial chunk of left-leaning voters in the university and professional communities of downtown Toronto – the so-called Cadillac socialists – were turned off by his brashness and stayed home. He lost. He was also defeated, said Sewell, by the success of powerful people in the city’s business and conservative political communities in uniting right-wing opposition to him.
This led to one of the most remarkable public personality re-inventions in Canadian politics. Layton re-crafted himself, muted himself, buried the brassiness.
He returned to university teaching and began directing his attention to federal politics. He ran twice for Parliament and lost. In between he won election to the regional Metropolitan Toronto Council and became a leading national figure at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
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