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Layton, Who Led NDP to Best Election Result, Dies of Cancer

Canadian New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton Dies
Canadian New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton. Photographer: Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images

Jack Layton, the leader of Canada’s largest opposition party, died this morning after a battle with cancer. He was 61.

“He passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by family and loved ones,” his wife Olivia Chow said in a statement e-mailed by the New Democratic Party.

Layton led his pro-labor New Democrats to their best election result ever this year, winning 103 of 308 seats in the House of Commons to replace the Liberals as the country’s largest opposition party. A surge in popularity for Layton in Quebec propelled the NDP in the May 2 vote, and the party may struggle to replace him because of his role in shaping the group that he led since 2003.

“He has played a massive role in Canadian politics and has shaped the trajectory of the NDP’s success,” said Amanda Bittner, assistant political science professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Layton said last year he was fighting prostate cancer. While dogged by health questions during this year’s campaign, Layton touted himself as a “fighter” in his speeches, drawing cheers by waving the cane he was using in his recovery. He took a medical leave of absence last month, saying he had a second type of cancer, which he didn’t specify, and said he expected to be back at work when Parliament resumes Sept. 19.

Letter to Canadians

“To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live their lives, I say this: please don’t be discouraged that my own journey hasn’t gone as well as I had hoped,” Layton wrote in a letter dated Aug. 20 and released today. “Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease.”

He also told NDP supporters that their “cause is much bigger than any one leader” and asked them to “demonstrate in everything we do in the four years before us that we are ready to serve our beloved Canada as its next government.”

The party should keep Nycole Turmel as an interim leader and find a permanent chief early next year, Layton wrote in the letter. Turmel, the former head of the country’s largest public sector union, took the interim job last month.

“It was his leadership that inspired me, and so many others, to run for office,” Turmel said in a statement sent by e-mail. She called on Canadians “to pull together now and carry on his fight to make this country a better place.”

‘Force of Personality’

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose Conservatives won a majority of seats in the last election, told reporters in Ottawa today that “Layton will be remembered for the force of his personality and his dedication to public life.”

Layton’s success in Quebec, where the New Democrats took 59 of the French-speaking province’s 75 districts, contributed to the resignations of Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe and Liberal Party Leader Michael Ignatieff after the election.

His support jumped in Quebec, and much of the rest of Canada, after national televised leaders’ debates where he made the sharpest attacks. Layton said that Ignatieff had one of the worst attendance records for parliamentary votes, appealed to young voters by making a reference to Twitter, and curbed the appeal of the separatist Bloc Quebecois by saying he would expand a controversial French-language workplace law.

The party may struggle to maintain its electoral gains since it has few well-known members of parliament in Quebec besides Deputy Leader Thomas Mulcair, said Robert Asselin, assistant director of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

Superior Rapport

“He accomplished what many would say was impossible,” said Asselin, who was an adviser to Ignatieff during the last campaign, adding it was “frustrating” to compete against someone who had a superior rapport with voters.

“People always referred to him as Jack, even people who didn’t know him -- it was a sign that people were comfortable with him,” he said. The party “will have a very big challenge on their hands to keep that success.”

David Jacobson, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, issued a statement mourning Layton’s passing.

“I will never forget the image of Jack campaigning as the happy warrior,” Jacobson said in a message posted on his website. “His energy, enthusiasm and passion for politics and for the Canadian people were undeniable.”

Tributes from Abroad

U.K. Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband said in a statement that “Jack Layton’s death is a loss that will be deeply felt by all of those who believe in progressive politics.” Other tributes came from the head of the Canadian Medical Association, as well as the lobby group representing Quebec’s largest employers.

Funeral details will be announced later, the NDP said in its statement today.

Layton was born in Montreal and grew up in the suburb of Hudson, Quebec. He spent most of his political career in Toronto, first as a city councilor and later representing one of the city’s districts in the House of Commons. He held a doctoral degree in political science from York University. Layton’s wife, Chow, is also a member of parliament from Toronto. His father Robert was a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister under former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

The NDP proposed measures worth C$68.9 billion ($69.6 billion) over four years in the last campaign, compared with the Conservatives’ C$6.6 billion. Layton opposed Harper’s tax reductions, valued at C$6 billion annually, for large businesses and proposed ending subsidies for fossil-fuel exploration and raising revenue from a cap-and-trade system for carbon.

Layton focused on what he called “kitchen table” issues such as high credit-card fees and jobless benefits. In an April interview with Bloomberg News on his campaign jet, he shrugged off of the “socialist” label his political rivals used for his party.

“I don’t use labels,” he said. “I say, here’s what we are going to do.”

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