With over 40 years in the NDP Eileen Robinson says she will always remember party leader Jack Layton as an uplifting man who never failed to inspire.
News of his passing was released early Monday morning after a very public battle with cancer, with reaction from politicians coast to coast mirroring the sentiment.
“I never ever heard Jack Layton mean-mouth anybody,” said Robinson. “Everyone really took to him because he was so upbeat.”
The charismatic character is widely credited with the party’s unprecedented success this year. In May, he led the left-of-centre party to form the official Opposition, the party’s most successful electoral showing to date, with 103 seats.
A father of two and life-long politician, Layton was originally from Hudson, Quebec and had a family history in both advocacy work and politics. His father, Robert Layton, was a Liberal activist and served as a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament and Cabinet minister under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. His grandfather sat in the House of Commons as did his great-grandfather, who was an advocate for the blind.
Robinson joined the party in the early 1970s as she started to get involved in local social issues and says, though only a dozen people attended the first meetings where she would have met Layton in the Okanagan, he spent plenty of time returning to the area, trying to rally support in his characteristic style—from the ground up.
“He just made you feel good about what you were doing,” she said. “He believed in people and that we could build a better country.”
Robinson’s first dealings with Layton came shortly after he was elected to lead the NDP party during the first round of voting at the 2003 party leadership convention. He had been heavily involved in local politics prior to that, even leading the Federation of Canadian Municipalities after losing a bid for mayor of Toronto, and she noted his experiences as a local politician must have informed his political outlook.
Both personally and professionally he lived for social justice issues—running an environmental consulting business, living in a co-op with his second wife Olivia Chow and becoming a notable advocate for the poor.
Layton immediately sussed out the homelessness issue as one Kelowna would struggle with in the years to come, Robinson noted.
“He saw that even here in affluent Kelowna, the homeless were here and there were quite a few of them,” she said, noting he pushed for local party members to see that the issue be addressed.
His death came as quite the shock for both her and close friend Tisha Kalmanovich, who represented the party in the Kelowna-Lake Country riding.
“As someone whose very recent to politics, I’ve just been amazed and impressed by his commitment to an alternative approach to politics,” she said.
From a small café in Kelowna’s North End, Kalmanovich and a core group of NDP supporters witnessed firsthand the success of Layton’s dedication to that cause. With sporadic cheers and plenty of smiles they watched the NDP, previously more of an afterthought on the federal political scene, take over as the official Opposition. “It was a rush,” she said. “It was wonderful. It really did make it quite clear that there are two sides to Canadian politics.”
Coming from the other side of the equation, Conservative MP Ron Cannan said he got to know Layton at many levels of politics over the years and was always personally impressed by him.
The pair would often run into one another in Ottawa where they frequented the gym, rode their bikes and the bus as a means of getting around—neither having a car on Parliament Hill.
“He fought the cancer just like he campaigned,” said Cannan.
According to Cannan, there was a general understanding on the hill that Layton was not doing well, even as the parties battled through the NDP filibuster of the Canada Post back-to-work legislation in June, which saw the Parliamentary session extend for 58 hours as the NDP tried to block attempts to force striking workers off the picket lines.
Characterizing his efforts to continue leading the party in the face of serious illness as heroic, Cannan said all of his colleagues were hoping for a medical miracle and that his presence will be sincerely missed when the House of Commons resumes in mid-September.
Finding the right person to assume the leadership of the party will be very difficult, local NDP candidate Tish Lakes stressed when contacted at the Okanagan Advocacy & Resource Society where she works.
“I still can’t quite believe it,” she said. “It’s a major shock all the way around.
“He was a very decent person trying to get the good out of Canadian politics.”
Noting the party would be in a state of shock, she stressed she believes the party needs to take its time trying to fill the position, saying he’s left very big shoes to fill.
In an open letter to Canadians, Layton himself suggested an approach of the same. He recommended the party wait until the New Year to choose a new leader, leaving interim leader Nycole Turmel in place.
In the letter he left messages for his party, others coping with cancer, Canadians as a whole, and young Canadians in particular, a group he was known for attracting to politics. (To see Jack Layton’s last letter to Canadians, turn to page A7.)
Now in his early 30s, Matthew Reed is among the young NDP members who has stood for election locally and said he knows firsthand that Layton inspired many young adults to get involved.
Rather than a dictatorial leadership style, Reed said Layton took an approach which allowed everyone in the party to get involved in setting the party’s policies and that his approach has left a legacy that will change the face of Canadian politics for generations to come.
In Kelowna, city council paused for a moment of silence Monday to remember Layton at the start of its meeting.