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People leave tributes and messages written in chalk with regards to the passing of Jack Layton at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Aug. 24, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
People leave tributes and messages written in chalk with regards to the passing of Jack Layton at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Aug. 24, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Hey City Hall, Jack is watching Add to ...

The death of Jack Layton promises to change federal politics, robbing the opposition to Prime Minister Stephen Harper of a popular and effective leader. It could change Toronto politics, too, reinvigorating the city’s once-powerful left on the brink of an epic battle over budget cuts.

The left has been on the defensive since the futile and frustrating garbage strike in the summer of 2009. Its champion, then-mayor David Miller, announced shortly afterward that he would not run for re-election. In the campaign that followed, the left’s mayoral candidate, deputy mayor Joe Pantalone, ran a poor third and the movement’s scourge, Rob Ford, came to office.

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Mr. Ford had it all his way for the first half of this year, cutting taxes and threatening an all-out attack on wasteful spending. But the mood seemed to shift this summer. When a consultant’s report suggested that city hall consider cutting everything from library branches to zoos, the battered left began to stir. Scores of people turned up to an all-night city hall session to rail against hurtful budget cuts.

With the death of Mr. Layton, the left is in full cry again, mourning its fallen hero and promising to defend what he believed in. He has become a martyr for the cause, spurring his admirers to fight against cuts to things like cycling paths and environmental programs that he championed.

“If things turn around, we may look back and say, ‘This is what did it,’ ” says environmentalist Franz Hartmann, a former Layton aide. “Jack’s death has given us an opportunity to celebrate and talk about a vision centred on hope and inclusiveness and helping one another.”

When city councillors meet next month to consider budget cuts, “Jack is going to be looking over their shoulders,” says Ryerson University professor Myer Siemiatycki, who once taught classes with Mr. Layton. “A lot of councillors are going to be aware that Jack is watching and that Jack Nation is watching.”

His death certainly makes it harder for council to cut things like the Toronto Environmental Office and the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, which gives out money for energy-saving projects and which Mr. Layton helped create. Consultants said both could be cut. Similarly, his death could galvanize support for his other favourite causes, such as cycling infrastructure and homelessness.

After he died on Monday, even right-leaning city councillors like Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday were saying that his eloquence and energy often made them think twice about their positions. His influence on city council now could be almost stronger than when he lived, given his sudden leap to iconic status. “In its own way, this is a kind of last intervention from Jack in the way the city should be going,” says Prof. Siemiatycki.

Of course, council shouldn’t let sentiment rule its deliberations. Mr. Layton was wrong about some things and it would be a mistake to blindly defend every project or cause he touched simply because he was involved. Given the city’s money troubles, it only makes sense for city hall to look hard at everything it does. Can it be done better? Does it need to be done at all?

Even so, the remarkable emotion stirred up by Mr. Layton’s death serves as a reminder that his vision of a city that looks out for its most vulnerable and cares about the environment is far from dead. Many people, not all of them on the doctrinaire left, are still profoundly attached to that vision. Moved by Jack Layton’s death, they are preparing for a fight. Mr. Ford will ignore them at his peril.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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