For many Quebeckers, Jack Layton is the only NDP they've ever really known. Now he's forced to step aside on leave as the party is working to turn momentum in the province into roots.
It's a political mission that Mr. Layton holds close to his heart: the day-to-day solidifying of the party's institutions and identity in a province where it was always thin before. Long before his Monday announcement, Mr. Layton was telling people in his party the NDP brand had to be broadened to be more than Jack Layton, especially in Quebec.
As it has elsewhere in Canada, the personal battle Mr. Layton is fighting with another cancer has elicited an outpouring for the man in Quebec, the place where vague goodwill for Mr. Layton surged just this spring into a wave of affinity.
Some broadcasters devoted their phone-in shows to the NDP Leader. On one lunch-hour show, several people expressed concern for Mr. Layton, and hailed his courage. One woman compared his Monday news conference to Pope John Paul II's appearance at the window of his apartment during the pontiff's illness in 2005.
"I'd say it's been mainly personal," Mathieu Ravignat, the rookie MP for Quebec's Pontiac riding, said of the messages of well-wishers who have sent e-mails or stopped him in the street. "It's concern about the health of a leader and of a man who has spoken for regular Canadians, and for Quebec."
But there is also political uncertainty for a party that, in Quebec, Jack built. There are other known MPs, like Quebec lieutenant Tom Mulcair, former public-sector leader Nycole Turmel, and former Liberal MP Françoise Boivin. And Mr. Layton is only taking a temporary leave. But some supporters worried that his health could keep him away longer - and many say he is the NDP's allure.
Danielle Gingras, 56, was unable to name her riding's NDP candidate or a single other NDP caucus member but knew she liked Mr. Layton. Because of him she voted NDP for the first time, and she said she hoped he will return to good health and active politics.
"I hope he comes back so that the NDP has a chance to prove itself and show what it can do for Quebec and Canada," she said outside the downtown Montreal hospital where she works. "If he regains his health, he still has a lot to contribute."
Retired provincial civil servant Gerry Drouin said he voted the NDP for the first time because of Mr. Layton.
"We backed the NDP just because Jack was there. An Anglo who becomes so beloved in Quebec really has to have character," he said. "It wasn't an NDP wave you saw in Quebec. It was a Layton wave."
The NDP will take a step toward carrying on in Mr. Layton's absence today when its caucus of MPs meets to approve his choice of Ms. Turmel, the rookie MP and former public-sector labour leader, as interim leader.
But capturing and solidifying the party's momentum, especially in Quebec, is critical. Rookie MPs, some who never lived in their riding before, are working to make themselves known to constituents. Even the party's help-wanted ads show it's a work in progress, dominated by searches for aides for rookie Quebec MPs, translators, Quebec organizers and francophone communications staff.
Mr. Layton has already made that his mission. "It's something we were grappling with, with him here as the leader," said veteran New Democrat MP Paul Dewar. "We expanded caucus significantly, and we had to ensure that what we had expanded was the identification of people with the party as well as with Jack.
"This simply puts it into the immediate context for the next six weeks," he said. "It merely, perhaps, accelerates the question."
But he and others noted that it's a leave during Parliament's summer break, and with a majority government leaving the Conservatives four years of breathing room, it's not a panicked rush for the Opposition.
"They have the luxury of time," said University of Ottawa political scientist Claude Denis.
"Clearly, the NDP is very much about Mr. Layton, and his absence, no matter how short or how long, is a problem for a party that has relied so much on him," he said. But he noted that there seems to be broader alignment between the NDP and many Quebec voters, and there was no post-election buyers' remorse despite controversy over a caucus of green MPs.
For now, Dr. Denis said, the NDP's chief concern isn't finding figures who will spark the same sentiment in Quebec, but consolidating support with everyday organizational work, and ensuring they present a professional opposition.
Mr. Dewar said he and many MPs feel motivated to focus on their jobs the way Mr. Layton would want them to. "The best way to help Jack get back here as soon as possible is to get on with our jobs," he said.
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