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.
In 2004, a year after winning the NDP leadership, he ran again for Parliament – this time successfully – in the riding of Toronto-Danforth.
Like the reformist Toronto municipal politicians with whom he had such close relationships dating from the 1970s – people like Sewell and David Crombie – Layton more probably fit the label of Red Tory than anything else, that historic Canadian political culture that envisioned, in philosopher George Grant’s words, “a country which had a strong sense of the common good … that was possible under the individualism of the capitalist dream.”
In the calibration of his political legacy, effectively answering the siren appeal of the conservative playbook will be near the top of the list. Brian Topp, the party’s federal president, said that at a July meeting of Socialist International he attended in Athens, Layton’s electoral success in May was a central topic of conversation. Everyone wanted to know how he’d done it. Topp called him a once-in-a-generation politician.
He will be remembered for his footprints into Quebec. “He shook up the deck in Quebec, and Quebeckers aren’t inclined to go back in time,” said Will Straw, director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada. The NDP is now a serious player in the province, not a will-o’-the-wisp that will vanish with Layton’s death.
He will be remembered for successfully re-shaping the party into his own image. He was not out of organized labour’s ranks, or the West’s social gospel movement or the academy’s socialist salons. Jack Layton’s NDP has become something new – broader, less ideological, more inclusive, a party whose next leader likely will be able to declare, like its last leader, that she or he is in the running to be prime minister.
He revived the party. He gave it profile.
In the 2004 federal election, his first as party leader, he declared that Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin was responsible for the deaths of homeless people by failing to provide funds for affordable housing.
He advocated talking to the Taliban as part of giving Afghanistan stable government.
He called for the repeal of the Clarity Act, setting out the precise terms for Quebec to separate from the rest of Canada, and promised instead to recognize any declaration of independence by Quebec following a referendum yes-vote.
In 2008, he tried to assemble a Liberal-NDP coalition with the support of the Bloc Québécois as a constitutional alternative to the minority Conservative government should it lose the confidence of the House of Commons – an action that infuriated Western Canada and fractured the Liberals.
He succeeded in the last federal election in winning official opposition status for the NDP – with 103 seats – the first time in its history, and capturing the majority of constituencies in Quebec. In the previous election, in 2008, he’d brought the party to 37 seats, just six short of the previous all-time high.
His message eschewed anger and attack ads, which he knew women voters didn’t like. For the NDP to use those tactics, he said, would merely motivate the Conservatives’ base while turning off its own. Polls showed that Canadians saw in him the image he wanted to project: warmth, approachableness, an absence of cynicism, positiveness.
He offered voters – especially in Quebec – an alternative political agenda to the Conservatives that stepped outside the mantra of tax-cutting and balanced budgets and talked about better pensions, education, health care and the wrongs of economic inequality. At the same time, he avoided a culture war with the Conservatives. He repeatedly told his party’s inner circle that he didn’t think the Conservatives were evil, just misguided.
“The growth in the NDP’s vote share and seat count under Layton’s leadership was no fluke,” said Patrick Muttart, former deputy chief of staff to Stephen Harper. “Layton and his team professionalized the NDP and made it a much more research-driven, voter-focused and tactically innovative political organization. He skillfully held his party’s base while expanding its accessible universe – piece by piece, election over election.”
And Layton was determined to demonstrate to Canadians over the next four years that the NDP was ready to lead the country.
Instead, the cancer that until a few months ago he thought he was defeating launched a devastating, final assault on his body. He had promised the country in July he would be in his seat in the House of Commons when Parliament resumed on Sept. 19. Early Monday morning he died, at the age of 61.
He is survived by is wife, Olivia Chow, son Michael, daughter Sarah, and granddaughter Beatrice.
Special to The Globe and Mail