09/19/2011 11:24 EDT | Updated 11/19/2011 05:12 EST

House of Commons opens with tributes to late NDP leader Jack Layton

OTTAWA - Politicking and partisanship briefly evaporated in the House of Commons on Monday as MPs remembered Jack Layton's courage, optimism and kindness.

The bitterness that has become a hallmark of parliamentary debate in recent years was nowhere in evidence as the tributes rolled out to waves of applause in the chamber where Layton often pleaded for greater civility.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper praised the late NDP leader as someone who earned the affection and respect of his fellow MPs.

Harper spoke of friendships that can grow even between opponents.

"In the case of Jack Layton, I believe that all of us developed this affection inexorably," Harper said.

"His passion, his perseverance, his ability to be at once tough and cheerful would eventually win over even those who most strongly disagreed with him."

He said he and Layton rarely agreed, but they shared a love of country.

"In the heat of our debates, we too often forget that people of good will share the deepest motivations and the highest aspirations," he said. "We differ only on how we believe we should act on these in order to address the practical problems that lie before us."

Harper recalled Layton's election campaign last spring in the face of a deadly illness as a "gallant" effort.

Layton hobbled across the hustings leaning on a cane after a surgical repair on a broken hip. He was also fighting a case of prostate cancer diagnosed in 2010. Soon after the election, though, new symptoms revealed a second cancer, never identified, that killed him Aug. 22.

Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel pledged to keep her party true to Layton's legacy.

"Day after day, he fought for the little guy," she said. "He strove to give a voice to those without power and wealth and to ensure that as this country moved forward nobody got left behind and nobody found themselves homeless.

"In Jack Layton's memory we carry on this work."

She said Layton always tried to raise the level of debate above cat-calling and back-biting.

"Jack Layton improved the tone of the debate in Parliament," she said. "He firmly believed we could have passionate disagreements without being disrespectful or disgraceful to each other.

"Let us now honour his memory by conducting the next session of Parliament in this spirit. Let us always put the interests of Canadians before our own partisan interests as Jack Layton would want us to do."

Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader, had a catch in his voice as he remembered Layton.

"While Jack is gone and has passed away, the things that he stood for and the values that he had and the warmth and strength and quality of his personality will never die, will never disappear," Rae said.

He said Layton will not be forgotten.

"As an adversary and as a friend we shall miss him."

Louis Plamondon, one of the few Bloc MPs to survive the Layton-led election tsunami in May, said the former NDP leader was a man of courage, integrity and passion. "Adieu Jack."

Green party Leader Elizabeth May said Layton proved himself a fighter in his last months.

"We are all born, we all die, and the measure of our lives is what we do with the time in between," she said. "No matter how short it might be, Jack did a lot in his time."

Harper and Turmel also paid tribute to Olivia Chow, Layton's widow and herself a Toronto MP.

Turmel spoke of her "courage, grace and composure in this most difficult time."

Harper said: "She, too, has won our affection and our respect."

Chow thanked Harper for granting her husband the honour of a state funeral and for the "comfort and support" he and wife Laureen offered both privately and publicly.

"The generosity of Canadians has been a source of great strength for me and for our family in these past weeks," she said.

She said Layton embodied the fundamental Canadian values of generosity justice and equality.

"It was easy for us to be hopeful and optimistic when Jack was around," she said. "The tough part is now."

Chow said she will keep up the fight.

"I am resolved to move forward to help make the dreams that Jack and I shared for 30 years a reality for future generations," she said.

"It is possible. It is always possible."