History Maker: Jack Layton

August 22, 2011, Jack Layton lost his second battle with cancer. In last May's election, he led his party to a place in the history books by becoming the first N.D.P. Leader of the Official Opposition.

Written by Joanna Dawson

February 22, 2011

photo portrait couleur Jack Layton

This morning, NDP leader Jack Layton passed away in his home, after a lengthy battle with cancer. Layton will be most remembered for leading his party to a remarkable victory last May, winning 103 seats in the 2011 federal election and forming the Official Opposition for the first time in Canadian history.

Layton’s win signaled a new era for the social democratic party, which was formed in 1961 as a successor of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Founded in the aftermath of the Great Depression, the CCF was an advocate for social and economic reform. The NDP has continued this legacy and Canada’s modern healthcare system can be credited to former party leader Tommy Douglas.

Deborah Morrison, President of Canada’s History Society, expresses her sadness at the news of Layton's passing. “Jack Layton has been a force in Canadian politics throughout most of his career. Admired for his tenacity, humanity and forthrightness, these same qualities and the results they derive were never more evident to us than in his most recent electoral campaign. Sadly, he won't have the opportunity to carry his campaign further, and a strong voice for Canada has been forever silenced.”

Layton demonstrated his unwavering spirit and leadership abilities at a young age, as an activist and community leader in his hometown of Hudson, Québec. He earned respect and gained his reputation as a strong political leader while serving on the Toronto City Council and as the Deputy Mayor of Toronto. In 2003, he entered federal politics, replacing Alexa McDonough as leader of the NDP party. Over his political career, Layton fought against a number of issues, including poverty, violence against women, AIDS and homelessness.

The news of Layton’s death spread quickly and expressions of sadness and grief flooded news reports. Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel offered her condolences this morning saying, “New Democrats today are mourning the loss of a great Canadian. Jack was a courageous man. It was his leadership that inspired me, and so many others, to run for office. We — Members of Parliament, New Democrats and Canadians — need to pull together now and carry on his fight to make this country a better place. And we remember the Tommy Douglas quote Jack included in every email he sent: ‘Courage my friends, ‘tis never too late to build a better world.’”

Grief crossed party lines as political leaders echoed these sentiments. Here are some of the statements issued by Layton’s colleagues:

“On behalf of all Canadians, I salute Jack’s contribution to public life, a contribution that will be sorely missed. I know one thing: Jack gave his fight against cancer everything he had. Indeed, Jack never backed down from any fight.” -Prime Minister Stephen Harper

“On the Council floor Jack Layton was a skilled debater who was well known for responding to the needs of all residents of Toronto. Jack was a fighter and he will be missed in Canadian politics. On behalf of the Members of Toronto City Council, I extend our deepest condolences to Jack's wife, Olivia, to son Mike Layton who serves on Toronto City Council, to daughter Sarah Layton, and all of his family.” -Toronto Mayor Rob Ford

“On behalf of the Liberal Party of Canada and our Parliamentary Caucus, I express our deep condolences to Olivia and Jack’s family, as well as to his colleagues and friends in the New Democratic Party. He leaves a powerful legacy of a commitment to social justice in his work in Toronto as a city councillor and as a national leader.” -Liberal Leader Bob Rae

Canadians flocked to Twitter to offer their condolences. Most tributes remember and honour Layton’s passion, determination and strength:

@herohill If everyone cared as much about Canada as Jack Layton did, we'd be a much better country. RIP.
@ddbooth Jack Layton. I never agreed with your politics, but I wholeheartedly admired your passion and courage to fight for what you believed.
@MikeCrisolago With Jack Layton's passing let us not mourn what we lost, but thanks to his life and work celebrate all we've gained. RIP Jack Layton.
@Ladypolitik Canada just lost one of its scrappiest, most lionhearted AND triumphant underdogs of ALL time. #RIP, Jack Layton. We love you. #cdnpoli
@jkmksharpe Taking a moment to honour the legacy that Jack Layton leaves behind. His passion and humanity were an example to us all. RIP Jack Layton.

In a letter written just a few days before his death, Layton shared a final message with Canadians. His approach to politics, life and his battle with cancer were one and the same: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

Layton called for MP Nycole Turmel to remain the NDP interim leader until a permanent successor is elected. Canadians will be watching anxiously as the NDP begins this new era and moves forward with Jack Layton’s vision.

Timeline

1932

The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) is founded in Calgary in response to the Great Depression. The CCF unites progressive, socialist and labour forces committed to economic reforms and to alleviating the effects of the depression. A year later, J.S. Woodsworth is named the party’s first leader.

1935

Canadians elect seven MPs from the CCF party, representing 8.9% of the popular vote. Future party leader and Father of Medicare, Tommy Douglas, claims one of these seats.

1961

The New Democratic Party (NDP) is founded in Ottawa as a social democratic party. The NDP unites the CCF with organized labour unions. Tommy Douglas is the party’s first leader — a position he will hold for ten years.

1969

A left-wing faction, Waffle, emerges from within the NDP caucus. The radical group calls for nationalization of Canadian industries, Québec's right to self-determination and an independent Canadian labour movement. They separate from the NDP party in 1972.

1972–74

David Lewis is leader of the NDP and holds the balance of power in the Liberal minority government under Pierre Trudeau. Lewis is instrumental in passing a variety of legislation, including a new Elections Expenses Act, pension indexing, the creation of Petro-Canada and the Foreign Investment Review Agency.

1988

The NDP secures forty-three seats in the House of Commons — a historic high to date.

1993

In the early 1990s, support for the NDP falls and the party is reduced to a record low of nine seats.

1995

After their defeat in 1993, the party engages in a rejuvenation process. In 1995, they elect a new leader, Alexa McDonough, by way of a two-step process, with a party vote followed by a national convention.

2003

In a nation-wide direct ballot, individual and affiliated union members elect former Toronto city councilor Jack Layton as the new federal NDP leader.

2011

Jack Layton leads the NDP party to a historic victory, obtaining 103 seats in the House of Commons and forming the Official Opposition for the first time in history.

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