Skip to main content

Federal NDP Leader Jack Layton waves to the crowd after Layton's victory in the federal election in Toronto on Monday, June 28, 2004.ANDREW VAUGHAN/CP

Jack Layton, the man who turned campaign rhetoric about working families into an election victory, had three of his own: the one he was born into, the political clan he joined when he became a card-carrying member of the New Democratic Party, and the marriage of true minds that he formed with his wife and soul mate, Olivia Chow. Each of them shaped him as a political leader.

The family

Laytons have been involved in public service, social-justice issues and politics for generations, beginning with British-born Philip E. Layton, who immigrated to Montreal in 1887 after a woodcutting accident blinded him as a teenager. He quickly established a company tuning and selling pianos and returned to England to marry Alice Gilbert, the nurse who had cared for him after his injury. Together they sailed back across the ocean and built a life in their adopted country. Appalled by the conditions in which blind people eked out their lives, Mr. Layton founded the Montreal Association for the Blind in 1908 (a self-help organization that successive generations of Laytons have supported and endorsed) and led a campaign for disability pensions in the 1930s.

Jack Layton's grandfather, Philip Layton, joined his father's firm. He also became politically active in the (then) reformist Union nationale party led by Maurice Duplessis, winning a seat in the 1936 provincial election. As a cabinet minister without portfolio, he broke with Premier Duplessis in 1939 over the conscription crisis, resigned his seat, ran unsuccessfully as an independent then followed his father as director of the MAB.

Successive generations were key MAB volunteers, including Jack Layton's father, Robert, a Red Tory who was elected in the first Brian Mulroney landslide in 1984. This blend influenced Mr. Layton as he developed his personal political philosophy.

The night after Jack Layton won big for the New Democratic Party in May, he and Ms. Chow – probably the country's most in-demand couple – slipped quietly into a fundraiser for The Stephen Lewis Foundation. Nobody was more surprised than Mr. Lewis. "My God," he remembers thinking, "does your engagement never end."


Mr. Layton's daughter Sarah works for the foundation, but her father's appearance also telegraphed his commitment to the NDP, the political party he joined 40 years ago as a foot soldier. Observers who noted the hugging and rejoicing that night saw familial bonds that transcended the biological and approached the metaphorical.

Back in 1970, Mr. Layton was more interested in becoming an academic who studied the political process than a politician who stumped the hustings. He was a Liberal who supported Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's imposition of the War Measures Act – until Tommy Douglas persuaded him otherwise. In a barn-burning speech in the House of Commons the NDP Leader said: "The government, I submit, is using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut."

Once committed, Mr. Layton never wavered through years of heckling, demonstrations and the vicissitudes of city politics in Toronto. Nothing was handed to Mr. Layton politically. He earned his stripes march by march and won the friendship of the party hierarchy through his "energy, determination and ambition – not for himself, but to change the world," said Ed Broadbent, who barely knew Mr. Layton when he nominated him to succeed Alexa McDonough for the leadership of the federal party in 2003.

"I did the most thorough check you can imagine because I decided not to support my good friend Bill Blaikie [the favourite of the caucus] but what I found out about Jack turned out to be true in spades," Mr. Broadbent said. These qualities included his energy, capacity to work with others (including political opponents), his civility and his ambition to get things done. "He was a doer without malice towards his opponents and I think that culminated in people's opinion of him in the election."

Mr. Layton wasn't a member of the NDP family in the sense that he had been bounced on Tommy Douglas's knee or had supped at the same table as David Lewis or his progeny. He met Stephen Lewis only a decade ago when they began talking – not about toppling the government of the day, but how to halt the spread of HIV-AIDS. What made Mr. Layton as beloved as a relative was his commitment to the social-justice heritage of the party.

Olivia Chow

Some political wives are superb at working the room, looking fascinated as they sit on platforms while their husbands deliver the same speech over and over again. Mila Mulroney turned the marital hazard of political wife into a vocation. Maureen McTeer was dutiful but grumpy. And Margaret Trudeau was – well, unsuited to the role is probably the kindest way to put it.

Ms. Chow was unlike any political wife this country has ever seen. First, she wasn't a wife, she was a partner. That was the way Mr. Layton always referred to her, and it was true on several levels. Born in Hong Kong, she came here as a teenager. She was a Toronto District School Board trustee and Mr. Layton a Toronto alderman when they met in the early 1980s.

Politics brought them together; their mutual appreciation of ideas, strategies and lifestyles helped them fall in love. By then, Mr. Layton's marriage to Sally Holford, his childhood sweetheart and the mother of his two children, had disintegrated. His 24/7 commitment to politics and political life was at odds with his first wife's desire for a more private, family-centred marriage.

Ms. Chow was the opposite in her attitudes: "It's wonderful to have a person who can share the same thoughts, values and degree of commitment," she said in an interview with the Toronto Star in 1988, the year she and Mr. Layton were married in an open-air ceremony on the Toronto Islands. After exchanging their vows, the bride and groom stood together with the Toronto skyline behind them and recited a long prayer for the city, intoning such lines as "this forest of towers of concrete, glass and steel." As ever with Mr. Layton, it ended with optimism: "Our city, may it look better the closer we get, not the farther away we go."

And so they continued, as each won and lost elections as local and then federal politicians. They never seemed to disagree, they always seemed to cherish each other's company and views. When Mr. Layton announced he had a second bout of cancer, Ms. Chow was by his side as she had been in his heart for more than two decades. It will be hard to think of one of them without the other, but if the past is any indication, his ideas will live on in her political career.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct