“A true and all-inspiring leader.” “The spirit of Jack lives on.” “You stood with the weak and the masses stood with you.” Scrawled in children’s chalk colours of orange, pink, blue and yellow, messages honouring Jack Layton covered the wall of a ramp leading to City Hall’s green roof on Monday. Most spoke of his qualities as a national leader.
But one of the first recalled his political roots. “Toronto lent Jack to Canada. Now he’s returned home.” Noreen Dunphy, an associate of Mr. Layton’s in his early Toronto years, says she wrote the message in blue chalk to honour the NDP Leader’s decades as a passionate advocate of urban causes from poverty to green buildings to affordable housing.
“This story is Canada-wide,” she said, “but this was his home base for decades. He had such a big heart and he thought the city should, too.”
Though raised in Montreal, Mr. Layton grew to political maturity in Toronto. Backed by the NDP, he was first elected to city council in 1982 at the age of 32, riding the wave of urban reform that brought David Crombie and then John Sewell to the mayor’s chair.
He served on either city council or the larger Metropolitan Toronto Council for the better part of 20 years, leaving only in 2003 to take the leadership of the federal NDP. With his trademark bushy mustache, his forceful, well-spoken activism and his high-profile marriage to fellow leftie Olivia Chow, he was a leading figure in city life, with as many critics as fans.
For someone who never achieved his ambition of becoming mayor, despite a 1991 bid, he got a lot done. “Whatever he accomplished, he never did in power,” councillor Adam Vaughan told the CBC. “He had an extraordinary ability to bring people closer. He never really beat you; he allowed you to join his cause.”
He was one of the first to seize on climate change as an urban issue and helped create the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, which used a small endowment from the sale of city lands to dole out grants and loans for energy-saving, pollution-cutting projects. His passion for greenery also led him to posts as chairman of the city’s environmental task force and its cycling committee.
A keen cyclist himself, he had to rearrange his honeymoon with Ms. Chow when he slammed into a newspaper box while riding. York Centre Councillor Maria Augimeri remembers being offered a lift home from a political event by Mr. Layton on a frigid winter night. She gladly accepted, only to find he was offering her a seat on his tandem bicycle.
He was an early fighter for gay and lesbian rights. As chairman of the Board of Health in the late 1980s, he spearheaded the city’s battle against AIDS, pushing for condom distribution and better safe-sex education. He once auctioned off a pair of his own jeans to raise money to fight the disease.
He was a leader in aiding the city’s homeless, helping to persuade governments to commit more money for housing. “He was doing it because it was right,” remembers former mayor David Miller. “People were literally dying on the streets of Toronto.”
As leader of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, he helped put the needs of Canada’s cities on the national agenda, pushing for more help to fix crumbling infrastructure and address social problems. His advocacy helped set the stage for the so-called new deal for cities and get them a share of the federal gas tax.
Not all of Mr. Layton’s crusades were so well-received. He helped scuttle the plan to send Toronto’s garbage by rail to the Adams Mine in northern Ontario, a proposal that promised to solve the city’s garbage-disposal worries for years. He opposed Toronto’s bid for the 1996 Olympics, complaining members of the bidding group were “all white male.” A harsh critic of the development industry, he opposed a plan to redevelop Toronto’s underused downtown railway lands and once said developers would “rape and pillage” the city if New Democrats did not hold sway on city council.
But even his toughest critics never denied how much he cared about the city he made home. By sunset Monday, the message wall outside city hall was full, so people were getting down on their hands and knees to write on the big concrete paving stones of Nathan Phillips Square.
The message he might have liked best read: “Let’s live by Jack’s example. Don’t agonize. Organize.”