Quicker than anyone expected, far more quickly than anyone wished, Jack Layton died of cancer today, aged 61.
Proud, principled, ambitious for his party, Layton was born into politics (his father had been a Progressive Conservative minister) in the Anglophone enclave of Hudson, Québec, in 1950 and remained a politician to the end, signing off with a moving Letter to Canadians two days before his death. An accomplished athlete at school (and urban cyclist later on), Layton undertook everything he did with the expectation of winning. He was driven and unrelenting in his championing of the poor and the marginalized, and a vocal defender of universal health care, better public transit and housing in Canadian cities. He made his mark in municipal politics in Toronto over two decades before, in 2003, successfully campaigning to become leader of the NDP, Canada’s social democratic party. An actual MP’s seat would not come until a year afterwards, in the 2004 election, after which the NDP won only 19 of 308 seats but held the balance of power and forced upon the Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin’s short-lived minority government what Layton called Canada’s “first NDP budget.”
Four years later, he was instrumental in a failed attempt to replace the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper with a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québecois coalition and, come the 2011 election, Layton would have none of conventional truths suggesting that as the leader of a third party in a fiercely contested parliamentary election, the destiny of his was to be squeezed out. The unprecedented rise of his party to 103 seats and to the benches of the official opposition in May was unforeseen, and largely attributed to the zeal and persistence of the bilingual NDP leader in Québec, the historically dissatisfied province where he made a point of avidly campaigning. Layton sought amnesty for American Iraq War resisters, better conduct by Canadian mining companies and, in 2006, was nicknamed ‘Taliban Jack’ for arguing, well ahead of the 2010 London Conference, that members of the Afghanistan enemy should be invited to the table. He was, in Canada, alternative, and will be sorely missed – not just by a party that has, at the moment, no obvious replacement, but by a broad swathe of Canadians wondering now, what is their representation in Parliament.
Noah Richler’s letter from Canada appears in the current issue of the New Statesman.