OTTAWA - Proud.
That's the word New Democrats invariably use to describe how Jack Layton would feel about his beloved party's evolution since his untimely death from cancer last August.
The NDP's world turned upside down a year ago this week, when a skeletal, raspy-voiced Layton, already battling prostate cancer, stepped aside as leader to devote all his remaining energy to fight a second unspecified — and ultimately more deadly — form of the scourge.
Sensing the end was nigh for the popular leader, pundits predicted a similar fate for the party itself, which had vaulted into official Opposition status only a few months earlier for the first time in its 50-year history.
Without Layton, pundits opined, the NDP's historic breakthrough in Quebec would evaporate. The newly minted caucus — dominated by inexperienced youngsters whose election wins were largely dismissed as flukes — would be in disarray. The next election would likely see a return to traditional voting patterns, with the NDP relegated to third or fourth place yet again behind the Conservatives, Liberals and Bloc Quebecois.
A year later, conventional wisdom has been turned on its head.
The NDP is tied — or even slightly ahead — of the governing Conservatives in public opinion polls, entrenching the perception it's the only credible alternative to the government. The party's base in Quebec has, if anything, solidified under the new leadership of one of the province's own, Tom Mulcair. And the party has demonstrated remarkable unity following a sometimes-bruising, seven-month leadership campaign.
"I think he'd be proud of the party," said Anne McGrath, Layton's longtime chief of staff.
"I think he could look back at this year and say that the caucus rose to the challenge, that we were disciplined, that we worked hard, that people learned very, very well to do their jobs ... and that we were able to pull together and do what needed to be done."
Brad Lavigne, Layton's former principal secretary, agreed Layton would be "very pleased" that New Democrats "have gone through the most difficult period of time, and we've come through with flying colours."
He'd also no doubt regret being unable to savour the fruit of his labour.
When Layton held his fateful last news conference, he fully intended to be back on the job in six weeks, said former party president and national campaign director Brian Topp. But as the summer — and the cancer — wore on, Layton became increasingly preoccupied with ensuring that what he'd built would continue after he was gone.
Layton died Aug. 22, 2011. He was 61.
"He said, 'I'm going to be Moses. I'm going to lead us to the promised land, but I'm not going to get to see it myself,'" said Topp, who helped Layton craft a death-bed socialist manifesto.
Topp went on to become Mulcair's primary challenger in the subsequent leadership race. But while he assailed Mulcair's social democratic credentials during the campaign, Topp now has nothing but good things to say about his one-time rival.
"What has happened here is a very successful transition from one leader to another; Tom has gone from strength to strength as federal leader," Topp said.
"In that sense, I think (Layton) would've been very happy with how well we're doing — and relieved, frankly, because transitions are delicate things."
While Topp was widely seen as Layton's preferred choice, Mike Layton said his father would be pleased that the party has chosen in Mulcair "a strong leader who isn't afraid to call folks out on what's happening wrong."
"He held Thomas Mulcair in very high regard."
Indeed, Jack Layton is out there somewhere, watching the party's progress with great satisfaction, his son said.
"I'm sure he's smiling down — or up, or sideways, or as a little butterfly or something, whatever your choice is."
So how did New Democrats turn tragedy into triumph?
Mulcair gets credit among party stalwarts for his efforts to heal leadership wounds, stand up to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and amplify the contrast between the NDP and Conservatives on issues like the oilsands.
But Lavigne said he believes party members, "to a person," also deserve credit for their unwavering determination since the last election not to let anything — neither tragedy nor leadership conflicts — squander their "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to form government next time.
Layton's death only deepened their resolve.
"We lost Jack and everybody in the party wanted to succeed, they wanted to make sure that he would be proud of us," said Nycole Turmel, who took on the thankless role of interim leader for a rocky eight months.
That was particularly true for members of Layton's tight inner circle.
"We had an obligation to the party, we had an obligation to the voters who elected us in such large numbers," said McGrath. "But also, for some of us who had a very personal relationship with Jack, we had an obligation to him. He entrusted us with a job."
After Layton stepped aside, McGrath stayed on to serve as chief of staff for Turmel and, until the end of June, for Mulcair as well. She was following Layton's instructions, as much as her own sense of duty.
Before he died, Layton was "very, very direct with me about the need to stay on, to work hard, to get through a transition and not to abandon the project," she said.
"So I felt very much an obligation to make sure that the interim leadership and the leadership campaign was a unifying experience."
Mike Layton credited his father, who personally recruited most of the new MPs, for the fact that the rookie NDP caucus managed to stick together and perform effectively through a tumultuous first year.
The elder Layton's guiding influence on the NDP will inevitably "fade over time" as Mulcair puts his own stamp on the party, he acknowledged. Even so, he's confident the "love, hope and optimism" credo articulated in Layton's death-bed manifesto will continue to resonate with Canadians.
"Even if it doesn't last connected to my dad's name, as long as that lasts, I think Jack and all of us would be very happy."
To mark next month's one-year anniversary of Layton's death, family and friends are creating a website, www.DearJack.ca, on which they're encouraging Canadians to express their commitment to creating the more hopeful, loving, egalitarian country envisioned by the late leader.
Canadians' contributions to the website — a sort of online echo of the messages scribbled in chalk by thousands of grieving Canadians at Layton memorials last summer — will be featured at a live tribute to the former leader on Aug. 22 in Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square.
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