Jack Layton Dead: NDP Leader, 61, Succumbs To Cancer

Posted: Updated:
Federal NDP Leader Jack Layton died Monday morning, Aug. 22, 2011 after a battle with cancer. Layton over looks Beaver Lake in Mount Royal Park during a campaign stop on Saturday, Oct. 11, 2008 in Montreal, Quebec. (CP/Nathan Denette) | CP

OTTAWA - Like some political Moses, Jack Layton led his people out of the wilderness, only to die within sight of his own Promised Land.

In the preface to his 2006 book, "Speaking Out Louder," Layton wrote a passage that turned out to be eerily prescient:

"Oftentimes, life's highs and lows are inextricably linked. That has certainly happened to me and, occasionally, the ups and downs were virtually simultaneous."

In eight years as leader of the NDP he took his party to heady heights, but fell himself to a tragic disease at the age of 61.

The end came with a terse announcement.

"We deeply regret to inform you that the honourable Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, passed away at 4:45 am today, Monday August 22," said the statement from his wife, Olivia Chow, and children, Sarah and Michael.

"He passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by family and loved ones."


Funeral details have not yet been announced.

Layton rebuilt his party, muted its internal squabbles, united its fractious factions and weaned it from old-style dogma to present a face more palatable to middle-class voters.

He starred in the most successful election in the history of his party and won the title of Opposition Leader, which had eluded his more storied predecessors.

Layton hobbled across the hustings last spring, leaning on a cane against the pain of a surgically repaired broken hip. He shrugged off the effects of treatment for prostate cancer. His dogged campaigning as Le Bon Jack won him a majority of the seats in Quebec, a cherished but illusory goal for New Democrats for decades.


He slew the Bloc Quebecois and saw the long-dominant Liberal party reduced to a battered hulk.

Layton was ready for a new Canadian political alignment that would pit left against right across the moribund Liberal middle.

But the victory cup was dashed from his lips by the onslaught of another, more brutal cancer that wasted him to skin and bones — and killed him just 16 weeks after election day.


Layton went, in one short summer, from triumph to tragedy and left behind less a political legacy than a political question: What if?

He was a man who carried politics in his genes. A great-grandfather was a Father of Confederation. His grandfather, a Quebec provincial cabinet minister in a Union Nationale government. His father, a Tory cabinet minister under Brian Mulroney.

He was a believer. He made that clear in the first sentences of "Speaking Out Louder:"

"Politics matters. Ideas matter. Democracy matters, because all of us need to be able to make a difference."

Layton was born in Montreal on July 18, 1950. He grew up in Hudson, Que., an Anglo community complete with a celebrated yacht club. It was a small town, but hardly typical of small-town Quebec.

He was a child of the placid Fifties in a well-off family in a well-to-do town. He was a teen and university student of the Sixties, with all that went with a decade that has claimed the word "turbulent" as its singular descriptive.


Layton took his BA at Montreal's McGill University in the late 1960s, when radicalism blew through campuses like a stiff gale. The rebellious vigour of the times led him to political activism. He doffed the conservativism of his family and embraced socialism.

"Events in the Sixties and Seventies were formative for me," he wrote in "Speaking Out Louder."

"My path grew out of the tumultuous days of the October Crisis."

He became an activist, canvasser and organizer for a community movement in Montreal as a student.

By the time he earned his master's degree at Toronto's York University in 1972, his political genes had clearly activated. He had studied under Jim Laxer, a key figure in the Waffle movement that rocked the NDP at the time.

Layton taught at Ryerson University in Toronto. But by the time he received his PhD in 1984, he had already largely abandoned academic theory for community activism and then the practicalities of municipal politics.

"I was hooked on local politics and neighbourhood engagement," he wrote.

First elected in 1982, he served on Toronto and Metropolitan Toronto councils for 20 years, honing his instincts and skills at the level of retail politics. He was a politician in the mould of a people's tribune, with rolled-up sleeves, 14-hour days and seven-day weeks. Every hand was there to be shaken, every story was there to be heard, every windmill was there to be charged.

His politics were those of the poor, the homeless, the alienated, the disenfranchised. He served as vice-chair of Toronto Hydro, chair of the Toronto Board of Health and president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. He twice ran federally and lost.

Layton's first marriage to high-school sweetheart Sally Halford, which had produced two children, ended in 1983.

He would eventually team up with Olivia Chow, another municipal power-broker. Together they would become the go-to couple of the left in Toronto politics. They rode a tandem bicycle along the waterfront, entertained, led rallies, marched in parades, ran for office and won.

Chow would follow Layton into the House of Commons in 2006. And she would be beside him in the dark summer of 2011.

In his rise, Layton gained a reputation as a brash, aggressive, even abrasive figure.

On a trip to Calgary for a meeting of the federation of municipalities, he raised local hackles with dismissive comments about the city, its appetite for new buildings at the cost of older properties and even its ritzy new city hall. There was an outcry in the local media and Art Eggleton, then mayor of Toronto, dispatched his own apology for Layton's comments.

He also gained a reputation as a master of the political stunt and the over-the-top comment. Some joked that the most dangerous place to be around city hall was between Layton and a microphone, where one might get trampled.

Rightly or wrongly, the image of a loud lout shouting into the mike from the left side of any issue clung to him after he won the NDP leadership in 2003.

It was a leadership contest that pitted Layton and the trendy new left against Bill Blaikie and the traditional, Prairie populist wing. Blaikie was a United Church minister in the best traditions of NDP and CCF champions of old. Layton was an academic and a firebrand. Blaikie was a Manitoban, Layton was from Toronto, font of all evil for many Canadians, especially westerners.

Layton won on the first ballot and went into renovation mode. He began to rebuild and re-brand his party. He was a people person whose BlackBerry kept him linked to hundreds of organizers, fund-raisers, recruiters and policy wonks. He worked through meals and vacations, pushing himself and his goals.

He toned down the wild rhetoric, although he raised an uproar in the 2004 election campaign by accusing then-prime minister Paul Martin of responsibility for the deaths of homeless people because he failed to produce affordable housing.

Despite that, Layton won his Toronto-Danforth seat in Parliament in 2004, an election that left Martin's Liberals with a minority government. The NDP raised its seat total to 19 from 13.

It was a start. Layton criss-crossed the country to raise the party profile and in doing so, became the public face of the NDP. The trademark grin, the brush moustache, the earnest optimism, the trademark head tilt were the tools of his trade. The hellfire rhetoric cooled.

This was reasonable Jack, optimistic Jack, the Jack of the kitchen table, not the street corner.

The approach seemed to strike a chord with regular folk.

  • In 2006, Layton's campaign produced 29 seats, but boosted its vote to 2.59 million. Momentum was building.
  • In 2008, Layton campaigned not as a third-party leader, but as a prime minister-in-waiting. The vote total slipped slightly, but his campaign won 37 seats, just six short of its then all-time high under Ed Broadbent.
  • By 2011, Layton was ready for a breakthrough. Despite the prostate cancer diagnosed in early 2010, despite the mysterious hip fracture, he was everywhere. In Quebec, his working-class French and his call to action on behalf of the ordinary family struck a note with voters grown weary of the Bloc and leery of the Liberals.
On May 2, about 4.5 million people cast ballots for the NDP, giving the party 103 seats — 59 from Quebec — and making Layton leader of the Official Opposition.

Just over two months later, looking pale and gaunt, he called a news conference to say he was suffering from another, unspecified cancer and he would temporarily step down as party leader. Nycole Turmel, rookie MP and veteran labour leader, took over in the interim.
Deuteronomy 34 says God took Moses up to a high place and showed him the Promised Land in the distance.

"I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither. So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord."

By John Ward, The Canadian Press

live blog

Oldest Newest

At his office:

@ JProskowGlobal : Growing memorial outside Jack Layton's Office http://t.co/IdER3eK

At City Hall:

@ jm_mcgrath : The lineup for Layton's condolence book. Told this is the first time city hall's done this since Princess Di. http://t.co/Alc8pPw

Share this:

We gathered YouTube videos of some of the memorable moments from Jack Layton's career in politics.

Like this one: His victory speech on election night

Share this:

In lieu of flowers, Layton's family is asking for donations to the Broadbent Institute, the left-wing thinktank named after former NDP leader Ed Broadbent.

Share this:
@ TOMayorFord : A book of condolence for the late Jack Layton will be available for signing at #Toronto City Hall. It will be set up on the main floor #FB

According to reports, books of condolence will also be set up in Parliament Hill and NDP constituency offices across the country.

Share this:
@ Scaachi : A shot of the memorial wall for #jacklayton http://t.co/XcmFaSO

@ delineated : Hundreds of messages for Jack Layton at City Hall. Really touching. #jacklayton #fb http://t.co/mlzsWXt http://t.co/H91Mx6u

@ kimfox : I'm seeing many similar sentiments around the square #layton #toronto #ndp http://t.co/Cb745Xh

Earlier in Ottawa, people paid tribute to Layton in a lunch-time memorial at Parliament Hill.

@ OpenFileTO : Over in Ottawa, @nonstopnicktv reports from the gathering of Layton mourners on Parliament Hill: http://t.co/KJ7qgy1

Share this:

The walls of Toronto's City Hall are filling with tributes to Jack Layton. Huffington Post Canada's Scaachi Koul is documenting it on Twitter.

@ Scaachi : Chalk tributes for #jacklayton http://t.co/HLCqo9H

@ Scaachi : #jacklayton's mustache of love, hope and change. http://t.co/TzgpCAb

@ Scaachi : Little boy writes "thank you" on the wall and becomes a minor celebrity. http://t.co/uj07eBq

Share this:

Jack Layton's death has sparked an outpouring of responses on Twitter.

A quick search on Topsy shows that the #JackLayton tag on Twitter was used more than 6,000 times today.

You can also view our small selection of Twitter responses to Layton's death.

Share this:
@ scottlightfoot : Another mourner stops to pay tribute outside of Jack Layton's home. http://t.co/GxG3jx6

@ scottlightfoot : Flowers are arriving constantly at Layton's house. By the dozen and single stems. Several people walking home had not heard of his death.

The Toronto Star also reported on the scene at Layton's office on the Danforth.

William Todd, wearing a black suit on his way to work, stopped at the constituency office with a bouquet of orange flowers and lit a candle.

Todd said he'd often see Layton on Saturdays on the Danforth, “not being a politician,” playing a guitar and talking to people.

“They'll have to close the street down,” he said about the growing display of tributes.

Share this:

Vancouver will hold a candlelight vigil for Jack Layton at the Art Gallery steps starting 8 p.m. PT

Details of the event.

Share this:
@ CityNews : BREAKING: Jack Layton to get state funeral Sat. at Roy Thomson Hall, councillor says at city hall. More: http://ow.ly/69P8j

Share this:
@ Scaachi : A bird's eye of the crowd at Nathan Phillips. #jacklayton http://t.co/nJuIA2T

@ Scaachi : People in the crowd write messages for and about Jack at Nathan Phillips. http://t.co/VYf6iYk

Share this:

Jack Layton, a long-time cyclist and bike advocate, would've liked this tribute found chalked onto one of Toronto's bike lanes.

Share this:
@ Scaachi : "And we will change the world" #Layton http://t.co/LyzQhTI

Share this:
@ PaulDewar : Holding a candlelight vigil on Parliament Hill tonight @ 8pm in memory of Jack Layton.

Meanwhile in Toronto,

The Huffington Post Canada's Scaachi Koul is at the memorial at Nathan Phillips Square being held for Jack Layton. Follow her for live tweets.

@ Scaachi : #Layton's words of wisdom. http://t.co/B6ewfEq

Share this:

The Toronto Star has republished a Kristin Rushowy story from 1999 about the love affair between Jack Layton and Olivia Chow. The couple have been a fixture in Toronto and national politics for years.

Aside from the passionate commitment on some very similar issues, the ones we've spent our lives' work on, we also enjoy each other's company socially and we have a lot of fun together. We're either in stitches or organizing something, those are the most common states of mind.

We enjoy the same kinds of recreation - physical kind of stuff, she introduced me to whitewater canoeing and I introduced her to long-distance cycling. We have a bicycle built for two, that was our wedding gift, and we go on trips all over the place with that. We try to do one of those types of holidays every year, away from the city and our cell phones. We don't think about work and we don't talk about it.

I love her wisdom, and her youthful enthusiasm. She's got really great values on the issues - justice for people and fairness, economic fairness, respect for rights, these things motivate both of us. She's a wonderful friend. I'm her biggest fan and I pretty much gush about her all the time.

Share this:

Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff recounts a memory of Jack Layton:

Often the memory we have of someone who has just lost his battle for life will crystallize around a single image. My single image of Jack Layton comes from last March in the lobby, just off the House of Commons chamber. After Question Period, the lobby is a crowded, rowdy place, full of MP’s, staffers, guests, standing around, plotting, drinking cups of tea or coffee, talking on cellphones or the phones by the chairs. I see this scene and I see Jack on crutches, his face moist with sweat and his complexion pale, powering his way through this crowd, cantilevering his body on crutches, taking the weight on his shoulders, moving towards his caucus area in the lobby. It is an image of a man struggling, in the middle of a crowd, to prevail, to make it through. What I remember best is his smile: cheerful, jaunty and buoyant. The smile was an inspiration, then and now.

Rest in peace, Jack.

Share this:
Ed Keenan, writer and editor from Toronto weekly The Grid has written a tribute to Jack Layton:

Layton was that rare person, rarer still in politics, whose platitudes were both eternally sunny and entirely heartfelt. Moreover, they were rooted in both a full awareness of the grim realities of whatever situation he faced and a spirit of intellectual rigour. He knew that the only thing in history that had conquered seemingly impossible odds was the determination to conquer seemingly impossible odds. In other words, he wasn’t an optimist because he believed the world was better than it was, he was an optimist because he believed in his own ability to make the world better than it was. And his belief in himself proved justified, time and again throughout his career.

Share this:

It's no surprise that Jack Layton's very moving letter has been getting a lot of attention among Canadians. But it seems to have attracted the attention of a prominent British politician as well.

@ Ed_Miliband : Extremely moving last letter by Jack Layton,the NDP leader, who has died.Big loss to progressive politics. http://t.co/cobrXV7 #jacklayton

Share this:

The Mark's news editor, Mike Barber writes this tribute to Jack Layton:

Layton masterfully played his small hand to actually win concessions from a government hardly known for them – bucketloads of cash for EI benefits at a time when thousands of his constituents desperately needed it. At that moment, all of his paeans to finding common ground with the other parties and getting results for Canadians rang true.

Layton accomplished all of that without cynicism, rancour, or keys to 24 Sussex. He embraced the politics of the positive, proving that hard work and his homespun “proposition, not opposition” slogan could indeed find a home in the most cynical of Parliaments, that being pragmatic bore better results than being dogmatic.

Share this:

A memorial will be held for Jack Layton in Montreal, this evening. The details are on Facebook.

Share this:
Share this:

A number of well-known Canadian musicians have sent their condolences about Layton's death.

Members of Broken Social Scene, the Barenaked Ladies, singer-songwriter Sarah Slean and progressive folk icon Billy Bragg have sent in their messages.

Spinner rounds them up.

Share this:

TVO's Steve Paikin recounts following Layton's career, first at city council and all the way to Ottawa's highest reaches.

I first met Jack Layton almost 30 years ago. I was a Toronto City Hall reporter for CHFI and CFTR and he was a rookie city councillor, having just staged what was considered a major upset over incumbent Gordon Chong. But there was nothing rookie-ish about Layton. He did his job with the panache of a seasoned pro. He was masterful at capturing media attention for the causes he believed in, and he championed many of them (Aids, homelessness) before most.

And despite playing the role of de facto leader of the opposition to Mayor Art Eggleton's majority on council, he wanted to be known for more than just opposing.

Share this:
@ kdaubs : Flower display growing at jack layton's office on broadview, door cannot be opened.

@ kdaubs : Thank you for your belief in all canadians, reads one card with photo of jack in front of rainbow flag. #jacklayton

Share this:

CBC's Evan Solomon recounts on-air how NDP Party President Brian Topp, Layton Chief Of Staff Anne McGrath and Layton's Wife Olivia Chow worked on the letter together on Saturday.

Layton wanted the letter released if he died but also made other plans if he was able to beat cancer.

Share this:

The Prime Minister recounts that Layton was a natural musician and recalled that Jack always joked about joining the PM for a jam session. "Alas, we were always both too busy," the Prime MInister quipped at a press conference on Monday afternoon.

The press conference also touched on Libya and the crash in Resolute Bay.

@ althiaraj : Harper repeats comments in English. "I will always regret the jam session that never was." http://t.co/1XsqnUd

Share this:
@ althiaraj : Harper says in French that we'll remember Jack's engaging personality and strong principles #cdnpoli http://t.co/S8junhF

Share this:
@ spaikin : jack layton was never an mpp. But the flag at queen's park is at half mast today #jacklayton http://t.co/SyGvISt

Share this:
@ evansolomoncbc : #ndp president @briantopp saying he, Olivia Chow and Anne McGrath helped @jacklayton write his letter on Saturday. #cdnpoli

If you haven't read Jack Layton's moving open letter to Canadians do it now.

Share this:

Follow Althia Raj on Twitter for live updates. We'll also be pulling highlights into this liveblog.

Share this:

With files from Scaachi Koul

Around the Web

Jack Layton dead at 61

Jack Layton dead at 61

NDP Caucus Unanimously Supports Nycole Turmel as Interim Leader

Harper 'saddened' by Layton's health announcement