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john ibbitson

Jack Layton shows off his trademark grin outside his Toronto home on May 10, 2011, after leading the NDP to Official Opposition status.Jennifer Roberts

Jack Layton's passing leaves a hole in the moral centre of Canadian political life.

Though politically shrewd, and sometimes tough with both opponents and caucus allies, there was at his core a righteous optimism – a faith in the possibility of government to craft a better world – that made him a pleasure and a privilege to know.

That he leaves this world at the apogee of political success, having taken the federal NDP from a party in danger of extinction to Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, is something we can and should mourn.

But clichéd though this will sound, we can and we must also celebrate that life and that success. Even those who shared few of his political convictions can appreciate the passion with which he held them, the astute political judgment that helped him advance them, and the principled foundations on which they rested.

And we can celebrate as well the joy with which this happiest of warriors fought for those convictions, for an honest break for the ordinary man and woman struggling to get by.

The political steel that lay behind that smile crafted an election strategy that convinced a third of Canadians last May that Jack Layton should be prime minister. He was so proud of that. He was right to be proud.

We didn't realize it in 2003, but Canada needed Jack Layton as leader of the NDP. At the time his moribund party appeared as irrelevant as all other opposition to the Liberal juggernaut. But that great machine was about to shake itself apart, leading to seven years of Liberal and Conservative minority rule.

Mr. Layton would prove pivotal in keeping those governments going for as long and as well as they did.

He leveraged his influence to secure benefits for the unemployed and increased government funding for social services. He sustained Stephen Harper's government when Liberal shenanigans threatened to bring it down prematurely, but combined in anger against it when the Conservatives closed their eyes to the recession that was racing toward Canada in 2008.

He came within a hair of being in government himself, in the cabinet of a coalition led by then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. Circumstance and the Governor-General prevented it.

Always there was, at his centre, this unshakable belief in social justice, married to principled conviction that politicians should treat each other and the voters who gave them their mandate with some measure of decency and respect.

That conviction is fading from political life in this country. With him gone, it is even more of a shadow than before.

We will never know where Mr. Layton would have taken his party next, with its large, new infusion of Quebec MPs. There are many political questions to be asked about the future of the NDP without him.

But that is for later. For now we feel only sadness, and some of us sorrow, that an ever-smiling, often-calculating, unceasingly hopeful Jack Layton, that joyous champion of the ordinary guy, is gone.