On August 22, Canada lost a leader and a legend. A mere four months after becoming the first NDP leader of the official opposition, Jack Layton died of cancer. The whole country mourned him, and Stephen Harper insisted on holding a state funeral, a privilege normally reserved for Prime Ministers, Governors of Generals, and war heroes. Layton’s death was truly tragic. Sadly, many Canadians aren’t fully aware of his contribution to Canada.
Jack Layton was born in Montreal, Quebec on July 18, 1950. His father was a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament and a Minister in the Mulroney government. Layton was elected School Council President in high school and his classmates predicted that he would become a politician.
After high school, Layton studied at McGill University in Montreal, focusing on political science. He soon became known as a national champion of social justice by fighting poverty.
Layton then moved to Toronto and ran in the 1982 municipal election, defeating the incumbent in an upset victory. He quickly became one of the most vocal left-wing members of the council. He ran for mayor in 1991, but lost to June Rowlands.
Having lost the mayoral election and his seat on the City Council, Layton turned to the private sector, but wouldn’t stay there for long. When Alexa McDonough announced her resignation as Leader of the NDP in 2002, Layton announced his candidacy for the leadership of the party. He ran on a promise to reinvigorate it. After an endorsement from former leader Ed Broadbent, Layton won the leadership at the January 2003 convention, defeating several other candidates.
Layton led the NDP from only thirteen seats to 104, and the official opposition in 8 years. After steady gains in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 elections, the NDP began the 2011 election campaign with questions about Layton’s health in the media, and their poll numbers falling.
The turning point of the election was the English language leaders’ debates, in which Layton delivered a fatal blow to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. Layton turned to Ignatieff, cited his incredibly poor attendance record in the House of Commons, and declared, “When Canadians want a promotion, they usually have to show up to work.” Ignatieff didn’t know how to respond. Immediately after the debates, the NDP began to soar in the polls, with the Liberals descending in free fall. It was beginning to look as if the 2011 election was going to be a game changer.
On May 2, the Conservatives won a comfortable majority government with 166 seats. But the biggest story of the night was the NDP surge. Layton had led the party to 104 seats with 30 percent of the vote and 61 more seats than the party’s previous record, and Official Opposition status for the first time the party history. 59 of their seats came from Quebec, a gain of 58 from before the election. The NDP had destroyed the Bloc, who only managed to win 4 seats, down from 49. The Liberals also suffered a monumental collapse, winning only 34 seats and 19 percent of the popular vote, the party’s worst result in history.
Layton had officially made history, and did so in an enormous way. He became the first NDP leader ever to become Leader of the Official Opposition, helped to destroy the Bloc Quebecois, and finally achieved the NDP’s lifelong dream of displacing the Liberals as the alternative to the Tories. Jack Layton will truly be remembered as one of the most, if not the most, significant leader the NDP has ever had.