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Layton stakes his biggest bet as Jack of Hearts Add to ...

Toronto is his base, the city where the Montreal-born Mr. Layton gradually transformed himself from a student-friendly professor of politics at Ryerson University into an agitating force in municipal government and then a national aspirant. He seems in no hurry to set up shop in Ottawa. Even after eight years as NDP Leader, he resists being mistaken for a political insider, always assuming that you can live in the centre of Toronto and still be perceived by the rest of Canada as a man of the people.

This unpretentious Chinatown-area house is where Mr. Layton and Ms. Chow hold their policy discussions, informal affairs around the dining-room table with one or two dozen of their friends and allies. “We talk about what's interesting,” Ms. Chow says. “For example, last night we had a discussion about compromises – about whether you can have a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan without sacrificing women's rights.”

The house is also where Mr. Layton presides over a karaoke machine and runs hootenanny nights based on the dependably progressive Rise Up Singing songbooks. “People flip to the page they know, shout out the page number and title and away we go,” he says. “It might be Bob Dylan, it might be Marvin Gaye, it might be a Gordie Lightfoot number, and everybody just swings into it and belts it out. We have a lot of noisemakers, shakers and tambourines for those who think they're not musical.”

The Opposition Leader is entitled to live in a 34-room Ottawa mansion called Stornoway, but the prospect has little appeal. “We'll live in Toronto and go to Ottawa when we work,” he says. “I haven't been [to Stornaway] and we're not really thinking about the logistics right now. … We've got a couple of suitcases and we'll move into a couple of bedrooms.” In other words, don't expect any hootenanny nights.

“It's all about what you can do for people, not where you live,” says Ms. Chow. The 54-year-old's conversational style is lighter and less rhetorical than her husband's, but she too is a 24/7 politico. Her idea of small talk is a chat on national childcare. They are the Bill and Hillary of Canada in the way they reinforce each other's beliefs and aims. “You get one and you get the other,” says former aide Jamey Heath.

Ms. Chow's mother is a major factor in their choice to stay Toronto-centred. At 85, she is just mobile enough to walk to the nearby markets that supply her Cantonese seafood preparations. Mr. Layton's own 85-year-old mother also lives here (she commissions portraits of her cats from Ms. Chow, an artist before she went into politics), as does his daughter, Sarah, who is an administrator at Mr. Lewis's foundation and the mother of Mr. Layton's doted-upon granddaughter, Beatrice (he's happily teaching her how to swim).

Toronto is also where Mr. Layton has been getting care after his prostate-cancer and hip surgeries. A workout fanatic with the taut profile and easy confidence of a lifelong jock, he's just come from a physiologist at Princess Margaret Hospital who's assigned him 30 to 40 minutes of cardio a day, plus outdoor cycling and strength training.

“When my dad got prostate cancer,” he says, “they more or less told him, ‘Go home and rest, listen to your body, don't be active,' which was frustrating for him and I think didn't help his health at all. The thinking has dramatically changed in the last five to seven years and now being physically active is seen to be extremely important.”

A child of privilege – and service

It often confounds people who imagine Mr. Layton a congenital lefty to discover that his father, Robert Layton, was a minister and caucus chairman in Brian Mulroney's Conservative government. Political stereotyping doesn't fit the Layton family well: The elder Mr. Layton, an engineer, had previously been a Quebec Liberal involved in the Quiet Revolution – Jack got his start at 12 posting campaign signs.

His grandfather was a minister under Maurice Duplessis's Union Nationale machine, who resigned in 1939 to protest its opposition to wartime conscription. This rebellious streak reaches back to his great-grandfather, Philip Layton, a blind organist who campaigned for disability pensions as founder of the Montreal Association for the Blind – his vintage pump organ is a prized memento at the Layton-Chow residence.

Jack Layton had what he describes as “a very, very comfortable upbringing” in the largely anglo commuter town of Hudson, Que. He was a nationally ranked swimmer who still compares himself unfavourably to an older teammate named Dick Pound; an undersized football player who got knocked around in practice by future CFLer and Tory senator Larry Smith (Mr. Layton aims to abolish his former teammate's place of sinecure); and a high-school parliamentarian who devised a strategy to get from opposition into power – he opened up the all-male club to women. “All the young men on the back benches of the government side thought that was a good idea and crossed the floor, and I became premier.”

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