Jack Layton’s empty seat in the House of Commons was a stark reminder that the man who brought his New Democrats to the Official Opposition benches for the first time in history would not be there to join them.
Before the cut and thrust of political rhetoric began Monday after a three-month summer break, leaders from all parties rose to pay tribute to Mr. Layton, who succumbed to cancer this summer after his stunning success in the spring election.
“One of the pleasures of serving in this place is the friendships that develop, and sometimes the surprise of friendships that grow between opponents, the affections that develop in spite of our strongest partisan instincts,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.
“In the case of Jack Layton, I believe that all of us developed this affection inexorably for his passion, perseverance and ability to be at once tough and cheerful but eventually win over even those who most strongly disagreed with him.”
Mr. Layton hobbled through much of he election campaign, first on a crutch and then on a cane, after hip surgery that was performed just weeks before the government fell.
“I cannot think of another leader, at least not in our time, whose campaign was described as gallant,” the Prime Minister said. “However, Jack's campaign inspired and merited that description. So too did his approach to his high parliamentary office. His commitment as leader of the other side to pursue more civil discourse in the House and to seek a constructive approach to opposition won well-deserved praise from all Canadians.”
Mr. Harper also commended Mr. Layton’s widow, NDP MP Olivia Chow, for the courage and dignity she displayed after in the days after Mr. Layton’s death. Ms. Chow, in return, thanked the Prime Minister for offering her husband the honour of a state funeral that permitted thousands of Canadians to personally pay their respects.
“The generosity of Canadians has been a source of great strength for me and for our family in these past weeks,” Ms. Chow told the Commons. “Among the condolences, our family has heard from so many other brave and courageous people who have been living with cancer or who have lost loved ones to the disease.”
Ms. Chow said she has been overwhelmed by the inspiring messages and said Mr. Layton would have been inspired by them as well. The most memorable, she said, were chalk drawings at the Toronto city hall where she and Mr. Layton once worked together as city councillors. The chalk messages have since washed away, Ms. Chow said, but “those messages will be with me forever.”
Nycole Turmel, the neophyte MP who was handpicked by Mr. Layton to serve as Interim NDP Leader, invited all MPs to join with her in carrying forward the late Opposition leader’s love for democracy and making Parliament an institution of which Canadians can be proud.
“Jack Layton improved the tone of the debate,” Ms. Turmel said. “He firmly believed we could have passionate disagreements without being disrespectful or disgraceful to each other. Let us all honour his memory by conducting the next session of Parliament in this spirit.”
Bob Rae, the former NDP premier of Ontario who is now the Interim Liberal Leader, had difficulty controlling his emotions as he talked about the man he had known over many years of politics.
“When I think of the work he did on housing – and as premier I worked very closely with Jack on that issue – he really did provide leadership, not only for the city but for the province and then for the country,” Mr. Rae said.
Louis Plamondon, a member of the Bloc Québécois whose party was reduced to four seats by the NDP’s electoral surge, recalled a time when Mr. Layton had put an unnamed cabinet minister on the defensive during a debate in the House.
Later that evening, when Mr. Plamondon caught up with the cabinet minister, the Bloc MP remarked on the tough time the minister had received at the hands of the NDP leader. “And the minister said ‘I don’t know what’s with him but he can tear a strip off you and, leaving the House, I still wanted to shake his hand,’” Mr. Plamondon said. “That is what kind of man Jack was.”
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May offered a final tribute, saying Mr. Layton died at the height of his powers.
“Jack died at the moment he had achieved something so long sought after,” she said. “... Our hearts broke for that loss. He worked so hard. He faced, as many colleagues have mentioned, an election campaign – which is always gruelling – at a time that he was also fighting a serious illness, more serious than many of us knew.”
After the tributes, all MPs rose for a moment of silence before the Speaker called on the government to resume House business for the fall session.