Jack Layton, whose popularity and political skill helped his New Democrats surge past the Liberals to become Canada’s official opposition earlier this year, has died at the age of 61.
The charismatic and well-respected Canadian politician had appeared before the media on July 25 to announce in a halting voice that he was temporarily giving up his stewardship of the New Democratic Party (NDP) to battle cancer.
Layton revealed his illness in February 2010 and was operated on in March at the start of an electoral campaign that he electrified, striking a chord with Canadian voters impressed by his grit and political fervor.
“He passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by family and loved ones,” his wife, Hong Kong-born NDP lawmaker Olivia Chow, said in a statement, hours after his passing in Toronto at 4:45 am (0845 GMT).
The mustachioed Layton, a social democrat who rose to prominence in Toronto’s tough municipal politics, was a down-to-earth, ice hockey-loving bull-dog on the campaign trail.
Always supported by his cane, he emerged as the big winner in the May 2 polls, more than doubling the NDP’s previous high and vanquishing his rivals in French-speaking Quebec, a key electoral battleground.
Tributes poured in from across Canada’s political spectrum and beyond.
“On behalf of all Canadians, I salute Jack’s contribution to public life, a contribution that will be sorely missed,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “I know one thing: Jack gave his fight against cancer everything he had. Indeed, Jack never backed down from any fight.”
“I will never forget the image of Jack campaigning as the happy warrior,” said US ambassador David Jacobson. “His energy, enthusiasm and passion for politics and for the Canadian people were undeniable. Something I will never forget. A standard for all of us.”
The New Democrats had long been a marginal party in Canada, touting higher corporate taxes, a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions and a doubling of pension benefits.
But in May, Layton’s lot trounced the Liberals, a party that had ruled Canada for most of the last century, and completely derailed Quebec’s separatist movement by reducing the Bloc Quebecois to four seats, from 47.
The NDP tripled its seats to 103, finishing second only to Harper’s Conservatives and earning the right to form the official opposition for the first time in the party’s history.
Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent said Layton was not necessarily a man of great vision or ideas but “a doer” who just wanted to make Canadians’ lives better.
Colleagues lamented that Layton would not get to see through his greatest achievement. As the Winnipeg Free Press noted in its headline, he would be remembered as “a political Moses who never entered the Promised Land.”
When parliament returned in September, Layton was expected to be a thorn in the side of the Conservatives and Harper, who won a majority government in May for the first time since coming to power in 2006.
“We’re going to oppose the government with vigor if it is on the wrong path,” Layton had said in May.
“And we will also support it when it helps Canada to make progress. We’re going to offer positive and constructive suggestions every day in the House of Commons.”
NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel, deputy leader Thomas Mulcair, and Layton’s wife Chow are among the favorites to succeed him.
In a final letter written in case of his death, Layton suggested that his party hold a leadership contest in early 2011 and urged Canadians to realize his dream of “greater equality, justice, and opportunity.”
“Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one,” he said. “We can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.”
Layton was born on July 18, 1950, in Montreal and was an activist and political science professor for two decades before becoming a Toronto city councilor.
The social democrat with a broad smile and an outsized personality first gained recognition in the 1990s as a champion of housing rights for the poor in Toronto, often attending council meetings in blue jeans with unkempt hair.
In 2003 he became the leader of the federal NDP, overseeing steady gains in party support in each of the last three elections in 2004, 2006 and 2008, but vote-splitting with the Liberals limited gains in seats.
It was only in the last five weeks of the 2011 campaign that the dark horse emerged as a serious challenger to Harper.
Layton’s self-deprecating humor helped earn him the respect of Canadians, many of whom viewed him as the nation’s most trustworthy politician.
He was widely admired for his courage in battling prostate cancer and continuing to campaign while recovering from a broken hip.
But it was Layton’s turns on Quebec television — first in a French-language debate and then on a popular current affairs program — that captivated the key province, leading supporters to call themselves “Jack-istes.”
A photo of Layton wearing a Canadiens hockey jersey, belting out a cheer and raising his beer glass at Montreal’s Bell Center during a Canadiens hockey game raised his profile even more.
The picture went viral on the Internet, emphasizing his longstanding roots in Quebec, which has about a quarter of the seats in the House of Commons.