The life and times of Jack Layton

The NDP leader has left a lasting legacy on Canadian politics

The making of Jack Layton

Photographs by Peter Bregg; Courtesy of Jack Layton

Jack Layton died after a months-long battle with cancer in the early morning hours of Monday, August 22. He was 61. Below is Maclean’s post-election cover story on the charismatic NDP leader, originally published on June 16, 2011. For more on Jack Layton’s life and his fight against the disease that would eventually take it, click here.

The Hudson Yacht Club, founded in 1909, doesn’t look like a promising spot for a young left-winger to get his first real taste of rebellion. The sailboats bob at their moorings near a sandy beach on the shore of Lake of Two Mountains, formed by the widening of the Ottawa River before it empties into the St. Lawrence just west of Montreal. The clubhouse of cream-coloured stucco and cedar shingles looks like the kind of place that would have a cozy private bar, decorated with nautical pennants—and it does. Over the mantle of the stone fireplace, there’s even a framed portrait of the Queen.

Jack Layton pretty much lived at the club during the summers of his childhood and teenage years. His parents, after all, were pillars of Hudson’s well-heeled English-speaking community. They sailed an 18-foot lightning, but the club’s main appeal for Jack was its outdoor pool. He was a fast swimmer. In an old black and white snapshot of the club’s competitive team, he’s the wiry kid wearing a medal around his neck and the grin that would later become famous.

Behind that halcyon image, though, was a reality that began nagging Jack as a teenager in the mid-1960s. Hudson’s population of about 3,500 was perhaps three-quarters English at the time. But what about the rest—the less prosperous French-speaking families? They weren’t members of the club. Either they couldn’t afford the fee, or they didn’t know anyone who might invite them to join. With Quebec’s Quiet Revolution well under way, the club presented a glaring example of how the province’s linguistic divide tended to run along economic and social fault lines. Layton recalls growing uneasy about the fact that while he swam in the club’s first-rate pool, the French kids were cooling off in the polluted river.

When Layton became the club’s “junior commodore”—inevitable for a boy who always seemed to end up running things—he realized he might actually be able to do something to protest the inequity. And it could be fun. The club held weekly teen dances in the summer. Layton scoured its rule book. “Buried in the rules was that everybody can bring one guest, except the junior commodore, who can bring more than one. No limit was proscribed,” he says. Layton and his buddies invited the whole town. “So every kid who wasn’t a member, I signed in.” That meant a lot of low-income, francophone teenagers.

The night was, at least in his memory, “fabulous.” The kids who always hung out at the club mixed with those who were seeing it from the inside for the first time. A real band from Montreal, M.G. and the Escorts, played. The northern lights put on a show never before seen over Lake of Two Mountains.

The next morning, Jack was summoned down to the club and chewed out. “I was called into the boardroom,” he says. “I was scared, but I was upset because I thought they were judging these French kids.” The disgruntled grown-ups threatened to scupper the youth club. Layton didn’t let them have the satisfaction. “You can’t disband it,” he declared, “we’re canceling it.”

More than four decades later, he tells the story with rising indignation, warming to the tale. It casts him, of course, in a favourable light that presages his later political persona. His concern for social equality and knack for attention-grabbing gestures clearly go way back. But the yarn also contains an element that’s not so easy to fit with the image of the social-democrat leader who orchestrated a stunning breakthrough in the May 2 federal election: Jack Layton was junior commodore of a yacht club?

In fact, his summers at the club, far from being an aberration, were typical of Layton’s privileged upbringing. And though that might suggest his political career on the left is a lifelong act of rebellion, a closer look shows his convictions are actually rooted in his family’s values. The Laytons were well-to-do, but they displayed an activist streak of social conscience. His father was eventually a Tory MP, but he introduced his son at an early age to the transformative Quebec politics of the early 1960s. Layton’s sensibility flows from all that, and from a potent blend of experiences as a young man: the influence of an intellectual mentor at McGill, street-level work with a group of Montreal militants, and the clarion call of an NDP icon rejecting Pierre Trudeau’s War Measures Act in 1970.

Before all that, though, comes the backstory of how the family worked its way into the Montreal Anglo establishment. Jack Layton’s great-grandfather, Philip E. Layton, was blinded in a woodworking accident in England as a teenager. That didn’t stop him from immigrating to Montreal and embarking on a successful career as a piano tuner and salesman. He returned to England to marry Alice, a nurse who had cared for him after his accident, and brought her back in 1887. Together they thrived and, in 1908, founded what would later became the Montreal Association for the Blind. It would remain a focal point for generations of Layton philanthropy and volunteerism.

The sons of Philip and Alice carried on the piano business, and also ventured into politics. Gilbert Layton, Jack’s grandfather, was a cabinet minister in the conservative Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis. But he quit in 1938 and later broke with the Union Nationale entirely when Duplessis opposed conscription during the Second World War. By then, the Layton Bros. piano store on Ste. Catherine Street was a landmark. Although the family no longer has a stake, the name survives as Layton Audio, a stereo store, and Jack Layton spoke proudly of his family’s entrepreneurial background in Montreal during this year’s election campaign.

Gilbert’s son Robert Layton was born in 1925 and graduated from McGill University as an engineer in 1947. An outgoing, upbeat man, he married Doris Steeves, a more reserved woman, later admired for her needlepoint. She also had politics in her blood, as a descendant of William Steeves, a reformist Father of Confederation from New Brunswick, who was appointed as a Liberal to the new federal Senate in 1867, and used the post to call for better care of the mentally ill. Bob and Doris prospered in the postwar boom years, and were driven by a church-based belief in community responsibility that would be a defining force in the lives of their four children.

Their first-born, Jack, illustrates their commitment with a story. As a young couple, they attended a church service at Calvary United in Montreal’s wealthy Westmount residential enclave. From the pulpit, the formidable Rev. Thomas W. Jones called for someone to help with the youth of the church. “And there’s mom and dad, they’re 18 or 19 years old, they’re at McGill, they’re sitting at the back holding hands. And my dad starts saying, ‘Is he talking to me?’ He leaves and he’s kind of unsettled—‘It sounds like he’s talking right at me, and there’s 500 people in the church.’ Mom said, ‘Well, maybe he’s talking to us.’ And that’s how they got working with young people.”

They carried that sense of purpose with them to Hudson, where they moved in 1957. Jack had been born in Montreal in 1950, followed by a sister and two brothers. The family’s house was designed by Ray Affleck, who would go on to fame as the architect of Montreal landmarks like the hotel and office complex Place Bonaventure. Far from ostentatious, the Layton residence is a tasteful piece of mid-century modern, a sort of flattened A-frame up from the lake on Birch Hill Road, where the comfortable houses are set back beneath tall trees. The town was booming then as a bedroom community for prosperous Montreal Anglos, drawn by the combination of small-town quiet and an easy rail commute to office jobs in the city. “We look back and we can’t believe it,” says Richard Zajchowski, one of Layton’s closest boyhood friends. “Really pretty idyllic.”

Even Hudson, however, wasn’t cut off from the 1960s. In Quebec, that meant the Quiet Revolution reforms that ended Catholic Church dominance and lifted a new French-speaking political and business class. On June 22, 1960, the sagging Union Nationale regime was defeated by Jean Lesage’s Liberals. Jack’s sister Nancy says their mother attended a tea in support of the local Liberal member of Quebec’s national assembly, Paul Gérin-Lajoie, and encouraged her husband to meet him.

Robert Layton became campaign manager for Gérin-Lajoie, who would go on to drive the modernization of Quebec’s school system as Lesage’s education minister. Robert Layton himself emerged as a key provincial Liberal party official. He cheered the landmark creation of Hydro-Québec—a nationalization project spearheaded by René Lévesque, Lesage’s fiery natural resources minister. As Jack Layton explains, his father had grown frustrated, as he climbed the ranks in a Montreal engineering consulting firm, at how private electricity companies were gouging businesses.

So Layton’s first memories of campaigning, despite his background, are of the era’s reformist politics. At just 12 years old, he tagged along with his father to put up posters around town for Gérin-Lajoie during the 1962 provincial election. The Lesage government was fundamentally changing the power structure, not merely making incremental change. It was a formative experience. But politics wasn’t as central to the Layton family routine as the United Church. Robert and Doris Layton ran the Sunday school. At 14, Jack was one of only three boys attending its Bible study group. His father asked how he might improve attendance. That led to the creation of “The Infusers,” a Sunday evening youth group that took on a mildly progressive spirit. A local doctor gave a talk on sex. There were movie nights and group discussions. Soon the room was packed. “Every kid in Hudson wanted a reason to go out at 7:30 on a Sunday night,” Layton says with a laugh.

Memories don’t get more wholesome. Still, there was that undercurrent of social stratification that led to the yacht club dance episode. English Protestant kids walked to Hudson High; French Catholics and English Catholics were bused out to separate schools. If Layton felt uneasy about the divisions, that didn’t stop him from excelling. He was a swimming star, student council president, avid participant in youth parliaments. He went out with one of the prettiest girls around. His leadership qualities were too obvious not to arouse a bit of resentment. “He was very socially adept,” Zajchowski says. “I would say confident almost to the point where some people would see it—well, you know the way kids would say—‘That person is conceited.’ ”

Completing the picture are family Sunday dinners. Along with his parents and siblings, his maternal grandparents, “Grandpa Jack” and Constance Steeves, were often at the table. They lived part of the year in an apartment built specially for them onto the Layton home. Jack’s sister Nancy Layton remembers her grandmother, who was from Virginia, as “your typical southern lady.” As for Grandpa Jack, the Imperial Tobacco vice-president was “quiet but you listened to him.”

The yearbook write-up beside Jack Layton’s picture when he graduated won’t surprise anyone who’s observed him in public life: “He always wears a bright smile which displays his natural friendliness.” His own comment on the “Last Will and Testament” page says: “I leave to become prime minister.”

But not right away. Promising sons and daughters of Hudson were expected to go off to McGill University, and he did just that. His lifelong friend “Zack” Zajchowski, now a learning skills counsellor at Victoria’s Camosun College, went too. They both swam competitively and made the university water polo team. Jack drove a beat-up 1962 Sunbeam and joined the Sigma Chi fraternity. “When we were sitting on the bus, he’d have his guitar and we’d all be sitting around him laughing and joking and singing,” Zajchowski says. “So he was kind of the centre of social time.”

Layton wasn’t cut out, though, to be merely a guitar-strumming jock. He soon plunged headlong into the vortex of sixties protest politics that roiled McGill, much like many other North American campuses at the time, but with the added dimension of language tension.

In some respects, Layton’s McGill experiences seem a direct outgrowth of his childhood. In Hudson, he was precociously worried about his hometown’s linguistic divide. At university, he participated in a demonstration called “McGill français.” On March 28, 1969, about 10,000 left-wing activists, union members and a smattering of McGill students marched to call for the English-language university to offer more classes in French, or even to become officially bilingual. Layton was excited and also taken aback by the intensity of it all. The protesters streamed up Sherbrooke Street to the neoclassical pillars of the campus’s Roddick Gates and started a bonfire. “I remember reacting—a bonfire, that’s going too far,” Layton says. “A protest is one thing, but that made me uneasy.”

Layton seemed like a young man in a hurry. Barely 20, he married Sally Halford, his high school girlfriend. He’d known her since they were children in Hudson. They lived near campus on rue Ste-Famille, where a left-wing activist group called the Front d’action politique was opposing a plan to demolish old houses to make way for condominiums. Layton threw his considerable energy into supporting FRAP. “There was this new urbanism movement emerging,” he says. “It was very local.”

Then came the October Crisis of 1970. The separatist Front de Libération du Québec kidnapped James Cross, the British trade commissioner, and then Pierre Laporte, the provincial labour minister. Prime minister Pierre Trudeau suspended civil liberties by declaring the War Measures Act. Suddenly, Layton’s FRAP friends were under suspicion. FRAP’s president said the group’s goal of shifting political and economic power to workers in Quebec was similar to the FLQ’s, although he later said that didn’t mean he endorsed the terrorist group’s methods. Layton says he was only involved in FRAP’s campaign against development in his neighbourhood, and wasn’t aware of its leadership’s statements on the FLQ’s aims.

Still, Layton recognized the appeal of the ascendant Québécois nationalism, which for some on the left evolved into support for outright separatism. Was he ever attracted by the sovereignist argument? “Not to the concept of the breaking up the country,” he says. “I think this is the greatest country imaginable.” But he elaborates: “People like Lévesque were speaking with a very powerful message about the people of Quebec being able to rise up and be able to be strong.”

Some of Layton’s most contentious positions as NDP leader point to the lasting influence of those early days. He calls for a law to make French the language of work in federally regulated industries in Quebec, just as it is in sectors controlled by the province. On the prospect of any future referendum on separation, he defends the NDP policy that a bare majority—50 per cent plus just one vote—would be enough to break up the country. In its key 1988 reference decision on the issue, the Supreme Court of Canada left open the possibility that a higher bar might be set, ruling that a “clear majority” on a “clear question” would be needed for Quebec to split.

Layton’s undergrad immersion in Quebec politics now seems key, given his party’s staggering breakthrough in the province on the May 2 vote. From holding a single Montreal seat before the election, the NDP won 59 in Quebec, the lion’s share of Layton’s caucus of 103 MPs, by far the party’s largest ever. But when it comes to finding the sources of Layton’s most firmly held political convictions, his apprenticeship with Montreal’s urban activists is arguably eclipsed by the impact of a single professor.

Charles Taylor was the rising star of McGill’s philosophy department in the late sixties. In the decades since, he’s won worldwide renown. His latest opus, 2007’s A Secular Age, tackled the decline in the belief in God. He’s a Roman Catholic critic of the modern emphasis on the individual, favouring a political ethics based more on the society. When Layton encountered him, Taylor’s big books were still unwritten. But he was a commanding classroom performer. “He just came sailing down from the back of the room with his famous eyebrows exuding energy and started talking about Socrates,” Layton says. “I was just nailed.” (Taylor’s charisma was such that his class also featured, Layton adds, an unusual number of “amazingly gorgeous girls.”)

This was no ivory-tower intellectual. Taylor ran unsuccessfully four times for the federal NDP in the 1960s, losing to Trudeau in the riding of Mount Royal in the 1968 campaign. And Layton was not just another student. He took all of Taylor’s courses, including graduate seminars. In 1970, Taylor published The Pattern of Politics, now a minor book in his canon, but to Layton a touchstone. In it, Taylor took aim at the politics of consensus. He advocated conflict between sharply contrasting ideas. “During the last few decades, the centre in Canadian politics has become distinctly overcrowded,” he wrote. “The dramatic frontal opposition between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ has been replaced by the evasive dialogue of ‘Yes’ and ‘We’ll see.’ ”

For Layton, the lasting lesson was that an outright clash between competing political visions is a desirable thing. “Back in the day, they used to talk about brokerage politics—smooth over all the differences all the time,” he says. “[Taylor’s] concept was that you want to bring out the different perspectives and have them stand in stark relief. Then what will emerge from those different positions are the real solutions.” In Canadian politics, this amounted to a frontal assault on the centrist ethos of the Liberal party. Taylor scoffed at the sixties infatuation with the “New Young Leader,” a Trudeau or John F. Kennedy, who supposedly embodied a consensus about reform. In place of the “liberal model of the politics of consensus,” Taylor bluntly advocated left-right polarization. Where he stood in that dichotomy wasn’t in doubt; he said “the autonomy and power of the corporate system have to be brought more into line with social needs and goals.”

Taylor touted the NDP as the vehicle for a collision of ideas in Canadian politics. Some argued left-wingers could do more, and more quickly, by trying to gain influence as Liberals. Taylor disagreed. “The real task would be to transform an old party without destroying it in the process. Looked at in this way, it is very much a question whether what is billed as the short road to reform is not really the long way round.” As well, Taylor addressed rising Québécois nationalism. “If French Canadians must learn to understand the English anxiety about unity,” he said, “English Canadians must learn that the identification with la nation canadienne-française is not at all the antechamber to separatism.”

Layton was under Taylor’s thrall by the time The Pattern of Politics was published in 1970. But he doesn’t attribute his decision to join the NDP to either his mentor or the book. Instead, Layton credits Tommy Douglas’s response to the October Crisis. The federal NDP leader, former Saskatchewan premier and patron saint of public health insurance gave a speech in the House denouncing the War Measures Act as an excessive assault on civil liberties. “The government, I submit, is using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut,” he said. For Layton, whose FRAP friends were threatened by the crackdown, the message hit home. He signed up as an NDP member. Since Layton was already devoted to a New Democrat prof and caught up in left-wing activism, Douglas’s stand appears to have been more of a final push than a root cause of his conversion.

When Layton completed his B.A., he wanted to stay at McGill for graduate work, but Taylor wasn’t having it. “He said I’d already taken all his courses,” Layton says. “He said, ‘Go to Toronto.’ ” There was no arguing. Rather than enrolling at the prestigious University of Toronto, though, Layton went to the rapidly growing, unambiguously left-wing, political science graduate program taking root in the freshly poured concrete of York University. His education there would be as much in practical politics as theory.

Political scientist David Bell, who would go on to be York’s dean of environmental studies, was Layton’s thesis adviser. “Even then, his political chops were evident,” Bell says. As head of the graduate students’ association, Layton mediated between his peers and professors. In his Ph.D. dissertation on foreign investment review rules, he applied neo-Marxist theories. That was standard at York. “He was not a revolutionary,” Bell says. “It’s just that the most popular analytical framework was one that drew on Marxist roots.”

Through his urban studies professor, Michael Goldrick, Layton quickly found his way back into the sort of activism he had already developed a taste for with FRAP. In 1972, Goldrick ran for Toronto’s city council as part of a reform movement. Layton worked as his voter-contact organizer, in charge of door-to-door canvassing. “I learned that job from these fabulous American draft dodgers who’d all come up,” he says. “They were Democrat anti-poverty activists, that sort of stuff, and they knew how to campaign.”

When he was just 24, he took a job teaching at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (renamed Ryerson University in 2001). Like York, Ryerson was expanding fast. Layton was hired by Terry Grier, another political science professor who would strengthen Layton’s NDP bonds. Grier had worked on the party’s founding convention in 1961, sat as an NDP MP from 1972 to 1974, and would later serve as a top campaign strategist for party leader Ed Broadbent through the 1980s. Layton calls him a mentor.

From the start, Grier recalls being struck by Layton’s apparently inexhaustible energy. He would need it. Later he wrote of his Ryerson years as a period when “nightly meetings and weekend rallies and conventions were piled on top of my duties as a professor.” He fought for rent controls and against high-rise development. He was also a young father, with the births in the late seventies of his daughter Sarah and son Mike. Back in Hudson, his father stood to run for the federal Liberal party in 1972, but lost in a bitter nomination battle. Nancy Layton says their father channelled his energy into his engineering firm, taking on projects in Africa and the Middle East, along with volunteer work.

It turned out that Robert and Jack Layton would be elected to office within a couple of years of each other. In 1982, Toronto’s former left-wing mayor, John Sewell, recruited Layton to run for city council against a strong incumbent, right-leaning Gordon Chong. Layton won the biggest upset victory of that municipal campaign, launching what would be a two-decade career in city government. Around the same time, his father was changing parties.

Jack Layton says the last straw for his father was Trudeau’s repatriation of the Constitution without Quebec’s signature. But personal relationships helped pave the way. Robert Layton’s golfing partner at the posh Royal Montreal, the oldest golf club in North America, was David Angus, now a Tory senator and then Brian Mulroney’s top fundraiser. Angus remembers the sociable senior Layton gradually coming aboard.

In 1984, Robert Layton ran and won as a Conservative as Mulroney swept Quebec in winning a landslide majority. He was briefly a cabinet minister, but made his mark as the reliably upbeat chairman of the Tory caucus. In that role, he met almost every week with the prime minister at 24 Sussex Drive to hash over the issues ordinary MPs were worried about. Jack says his father passed along sage advice about keeping lines of communication open to MPs, a hallmark of Mulroney’s nine years as PM.

Jack Layton without a doubt inherited much of his father’s infectious likeability. But there was also something about his style that grated on some. The sobriquet “Smilin’ Jack” was increasingly heard, and not always meant kindly. His ability to lure TV cameras and generate headlines annoyed less media-savvy Toronto politicians. He’d ride his bike to just about any event. He quickly became the most prominent face on the council’s left flank, often the voice of opposition to development projects.

Drawing the line between grandstanding and conviction politics is tricky when it comes to Layton’s city hall years. He once lay down on the pavement to have a chalk outline of himself drawn to call attention to AIDS deaths. He was charged with trespassing for handing out pamphlets in the Eaton Centre in support of a unionization drive, but later won acquittal on freedom-of-expression grounds. He denounced an entire council as “largely corrupt” and, when pressed to support the charge, fell back on a Webster’s dictionary definition of “corrupt” as “deteriorated from the normal standard.”

In 1985, a barbed joke in a bar prompted him to rethink his political style. He went to meet one of his younger brothers, then doing graduate work at the University of Toronto, at a downtown pub. “He’s introducing me to his buddies, and one of them—he’s had several beers—says, ‘Oh, you’re Jack Layton. I thought your name was But Jack Layton. You know, you read in the paper, ‘The mayor proposes this, but Jack Layton,’ or, ‘They want to do this, but Jack Layton?.?.?.?’ ” The jibe stung. “I was opposing things,” he says. “But I always got the most satisfaction out of life from proposing things.”

Layton says he decided to search out a role that would allow him to be a more constructive player. After kicking ideas around with Dan Leckie, his best friend and closest adviser (who died at just 48 in 1998 of a brain aneurysm), Layton decided to try for the chairmanship of the Toronto Board of Health. He wasn’t expected to win, but says he did “through some manoeuvring and knowing the rules better than the next guy.”

The job put him at the forefront of health policy in the city at the start of the AIDS crisis. A city bureaucrat came to him secretly to sound the alarm. The official’s concern about a blood-borne, sexually transmitted, fatal disease was personal—his son was a hemophiliac. Layton succeeded in spearheading a drive for a landmark $6-million AIDS Defence Plan. Even that hardly seemed enough, as gay men were dying in increasing numbers. “I was doing eulogies every week,” Layton says.

Those closest to him noted the difference in this stage of his political evolution. “I remember sort of following Jack as he started his political career in Toronto,” says Nancy Layton. “He was this sort of left-wing socialist and radical, sort of ranting and raving. And then there came a time, I don’t know exactly when, but I realized that he had figured it out. You can’t just rant, you’ve got to have answers. He became effective.”

Beyond his bid to simultaneously remake his image and take on serious challenges, Layton’s life was in transition. His marriage had broken up by the mid-eighties. (His first wife remarried and, as Sally Roy, became vice-president of human resources at Toronto’s George Brown College before retiring a few years ago.) In the summer of 1984, Layton met Olivia Chow at a hospital fundraiser aimed at Chinese donors. He was acting as auctioneer, she was translating into Cantonese. They hit it off. She was running for school board that year, and he was standing again for city council. They both won. They spent their first Christmas Eve as a couple drafting a school nutrition policy.

Since then, they’ve blended the personal and political like no other power couple in Canada. Asked how they keep the two sides of their life from being hopelessly entangled, Chow once said, “Why would we want to do that?”

Their backgrounds seem worlds apart. Her family immigrated from Hong Kong when she was 13, and her degrees are in philosophy and fine art. She worked professionally as a sculptor before finding a job as a constituency assistant for a downtown Toronto NDP MP. But Chow’s bedrock childhood experiences in the Chinese Baptist Church, which stressed social responsibility, roughly parallel Layton’s at Hudson’s United Church. And they share a conviction that seeking publicity is integral to making political hay.

Their life is an urban hipster fantasy. They live in a three-storey Victorian semi in downtown Toronto, complete with solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling. It’s a gathering place for Toronto activists and artists. There are regular singalongs—Layton is unselfconscious about hauling out his guitar. He passes around copies of Rise Up Singing, a collection of everything from old-time folk to the Beatles to Broadway. “Any given week you’ll have a couple of meetings there,” says Layton’s son Mike, an environmental activist who was elected to Toronto city council last year. Visitors often include musicians. When Layton and Chow were married in 1988, Lorraine Segato, leader of the eighties band the Parachute Club, performed at the wedding. “Jack’s always drawing people who have a different way of thinking about or articulating an issue,” Segato says. “He appreciates the kind of circular way that creative people think.”

For some, Layton and Chow make an irresistible target—bicycle-riding, benefit-attending, downtown-dwelling do-gooders. Enemies pounced when news broke in 1990 that, despite their six-figure income, they were living in a subsidized co-op building. They said the co-op’s policy was to bring together tenants with a wide range of incomes, and they paid market rent; a city investigation cleared Layton.

More tenacious is the suspicion that there’s just something phony about Smilin’ Jack. Friends and family insist there’s no artifice in his manner. “It’s ultimately not a show,” says Mike Layton. “He’s being himself. He’s just incredibly excited about the work he does.” Old friends from Hudson point out that if he’s faking it, he’s been doing so for pretty much his entire life. Nancy Layton says that of all the criticisms levelled at her brother, she’s most annoyed at insinuations that he’s insincere.

He’s willing to deploy personal experiences—the kind many politicians are guarded about—to advance arguments. In Speaking Out: Ideas That Work for Canadians, a blend of memoir and manifesto, Layton tells of his father’s final struggle with Parkinson’s before his death in 2002. When he needed full-time care, the Layton family first found a private facility. Despite the $3,000 a month cost, “there was a telltale odour of urine.” Staff seemed unhappy, and Robert Layton’s spirits sank. So the family found a better place, the non-profit Laughlen Centre (which has since closed) in downtown Toronto. The scent in the air was “home cooking.” Layton’s conclusion: Canada needs a national plan to ensure “high-quality, non-profit, long-term care” for all seniors.

One of his most dramatic stories is about the cold January night in 1996 when he and Chow were walking up Toronto’s Spadina Avenue. They stopped to make sure a couple of homeless men in a doorway were okay. But the next morning, as they sipped coffee, the radio news reported that another homeless man, Eugene Upper, had frozen to death in a bus shelter—right across the street from where they had walked. Layton took up homelessness as a cause, and even wrote a book on the subject.

Layton is sure-footed on homelessness, AIDS, energy efficiency—all strengths from his city hall years. He’s arguably less persuasive on national economic issues that are more removed from his direct experience. In Speaking Out, he rails against the North American Free Trade Agreement, for instance, recycling old warnings that NAFTA might somehow force bulk water exports from Canada and undermine Ottawa’s ability to enforce environmental laws. But these dire predictions go back to the epic debate over Canada-U.S. free trade in 1988, and haven’t yet come to pass, so their edge has dulled with age.

Layton expounded on his view of urban affairs in “City Politics in Canada,” an essay published in a textbook in 1990. He paints a cityscape rife with class conflict. The business class hires “experts, lobbyists and lawyers” to push its development interests. Community groups dominated by the middle class occasionally face off against business. Poor neighbourhoods “can almost always count on defeat.”

His response is to urge organized community action. He’s aware that his slant raises questions about his perspective on individual liberty. Layton addresses the tension between individual and group interests in the forward he contributed to Trent University lecturer Robert Meynell’s new book, Canadian Idealism and the Philosophy of Freedom. (Meynell includes Charles Taylor among the seminal idealists.) “The idealist current,” Layton writes, “holds that human society has the potential to achieve liberty when people work together to form a society in which equality means more than negative liberty, the absolute and protected right to run races against each other to determine winners.” He sums up: “Idealists imagine a positive liberty that enables us to build together toward common objectives that fulfill and even surpass our individual goals.”

By the 1990s, Layton’s own goals had him looking beyond Toronto. He lost badly to a right-of-centre rival, June Rowlands, in his 1991 bid to become mayor. That was, he says, “a skin-thickening experience.” He ran and lost as an NDP candidate in the 1993 federal election, returned to city politics, then lost a second time, in a different riding, in the 1997 federal campaign. Seeking a different route onto the national stage, he became president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in 2001. At the FCM, he succeeded in working with provinces to persuade the then-Liberal government to back a deal to build affordable housing. David Bell says Layton talked often about how his FCM message was resonating across the country. “I think that was what persuaded him that there was a place for him at the national level,” Bell says.

Trying to jump from municipal politics straight to the federal NDP leadership was audacious. There was, however, a strong case for new blood. Before she resigned in 2002, Alexa McDonough led the party to a dismal showing in the 2000 election—just 13 MPs and 8.5 per cent of the popular vote. Layton launched his run against caucus favourite Bill Blaikie, the bearded, beloved MP from Manitoba, with typical style: while not a single sitting NDP MP attended his kickoff event, Barenaked Ladies lead singer Steven Page showed up to provide some glitz.

Layton relied heavily on signing up new members rather than courting long-time NDPers. Some powerful union bosses opposed him. Grier was amazed by the number of new recruits at a Layton fundraising banquet. As an NDP stalwart, Grier was used to recognizing many faces at a party function. As well, he was struck by Layton’s nuts-and-bolts emphasis on rebuilding the party’s outmoded organization. “He was anything but tired,” he recalls, “anything but beaten.”

Grier touted Layton in a letter to his old friend Ed Broadbent, despite Broadbent’s long-standing friendship with Blaikie. The venerated former leader came aboard. “It was an enormous endorsement,” Grier says. “Ed was the most influential New Democrat alive. Most New Democrats, if they knew Jack Layton at all, knew him as an ambitious municipal politician.”

Layton won on the first ballot on Jan. 24, 2003. He came to Ottawa without a seat. Blaikie says they had a long one-to-one talk in his Parliament Hill office that left him convinced Layton was willing to take advice from veterans. But this was still Smilin’ Jack. Early on, for instance, he would watch question period from the lobby of the Commons, then rush out to deliver his TV-ready reaction to the media before QP was even concluded, beating sitting MPs to the scrums. After some grumbling about his unseemly eagerness to get in front of the cameras first, Layton switched to the more traditional pace that lets cabinet ministers hold forth first.

Any refinement of Layton’s approach was less telling than behind-the-scenes changes he implemented. Layton set in motion fundamental reforms to party financing and campaign-readiness. Previously, the NDP had been dominated by its provincial wings. Under Layton, the federal party took firm control of fundraising and outreach to members. “There has been some criticism of Jack over the past few years that he has shaped the federal party almost as an instrument of the national leader rather than of the national movement,” Grier says. “There’s probably an element of truth in that. Well, all I could say is, it’s working so far.”

Even as Layton showed organizational acumen, his style remained sporadically controversial. During his first federal campaign as leader in 2004, he said homeless people died as a result of spending cuts imposed when then-Liberal leader Paul Martin was a deficit-fighting finance minister. That harsh charge put Layton on the defensive for several crucial days of campaigning. During this year’s campaign, he told the CBC he deeply regretted the remark. Yet he’d made it more than once. Launching his NDP leadership bid in 2002, he remarked that then-prime minister Jean Chrétien had admitted in a conversation that he’d “lost interest” in affordable housing. “Well, because he ‘lost interest,’ ” Layton said, “a homeless man named Eugene Upper froze to death in a bus shelter, one block from my home.”

The NDP’s fortunes rose steadily through Layton’s first three campaigns as leader. In 2004, he nearly doubled the party’s vote from the previous election, boosting its seat total to a modest 19. His caucus expanded to 29 in 2006, then 37 in 2008. (Chow joined Layton in Parliament by winning a Toronto seat in 2006.) Along the way, he proved he could do more than smile and talk. His biggest coup as a deal-maker: extracting $4.6 billion for NDP priorities like affordable housing and mass transit in return for temporarily propping up Paul Martin’s scandal-weakened Liberal government in 2005.

His decision late that year to combine with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to bring down Martin’s minority remains controversial. Green party Leader Elizabeth May accused Layton of ignoring the crucial timetable of international climate change negotiations the Liberals were then pursuing. And after Harper won the early 2006 election, Liberals blamed Layton when the new Tory government cancelled some of their progressive initiatives, notably a national child care program.

The shared strategic interest of Conservatives and New Democrats in laying low the once-mighty Liberals is a touchy topic. Layton is cagey on it. Just before last spring’s campaign, he flatly denied in an interview that he planned to run a two-pronged campaign against Tories and Liberals, even though his senior officials were talking openly about that strategy. “Our campaign,” Layton said then, “is against the Harper government and its policies.”

He denied knowing anything about NDP advertising that would take aim at the Liberals’ Michael Ignatieff. As it turned out, NDP ads were at least as tough on Ignatieff as they were on Harper. In the English TV debate, Layton ripped Ignatieff over his House attendance record in the most damaging assault of the night. “You know, most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion,” Layton said. “You missed 70 per cent of the votes.”

One reason Layton was able to succeed while being so aggressive was that health problems had made him a more sympathetic figure. Last year, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and the apparently successful treatment nonetheless took its toll. Then, early this year, he mysteriously broke a hip. The fracture required surgery to repair. He took to the hustings for the spring campaign thin and hobbled.

On the limping, older-looking Layton, the signature grey moustache looked less a stray seventies relic and more a possible homage to, say, Depression-era CCFers. Rhetoric that would before have sounded brassy now came off as brave. He picked up steam. Even a late-campaign news story revealing that Layton had been found by Toronto police, back in 1996, in a dubious massage parlour didn’t derail him. Calling the story a “smear,” he said he went for a therapeutic massage and denied anything sexual happened. “I don’t even remember the name of the place,” he says. (It was Velvet Touch.) “I thought it was a legit operation until the police told me otherwise.” Even that lurid distraction couldn’t compete in the public imagination with the sight of Layton raising his talismanic walking stick high as he soaked up the cheers at a packed rally—the picture that will surely last as the 2011 election’s iconic image.

Helping Harper reduce the Liberals to their worst outcome in history works with both Layton’s immediate aims and his intellectual foundations. His early activism in Montreal and conversion to the NDP during the October Crisis framed the Liberals most clearly as the enemy. His guidebook, Taylor’s The Pattern of Politics, inveighs against centrist parties and praises polarization; after the 2011 election, Canadian federal politics is more polarized than ever. He looks to Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, where two-party systems make the provincial NDP perennial competitors for power. If the Liberals fail to revive, allowing the NDP to consolidate their new second-place standing, the same dynamic could take hold in Ottawa.

Layton has set up the NDP to realistically aspire to govern Canada. But will he get a chance to make that once-improbable dream a reality? He turns 61 this summer, and will be a senior citizen around the time Harper’s first majority term runs out. He’s a grandfather now. His daughter Sarah, who works in Toronto for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, told him, with dramatic timing, that she was pregnant on 2008’s election night. When she brought Beatrice, not yet two years old, to rallies during this year’s campaign, the new Grandpa Jack would pick the blond-haired head out in the crowd, his eyes zeroing in on the toddler, his smile acquiring even more wattage. He’s taken to framing goals in terms of what’s best for her generation.

He looks back, too. His mentions his father’s example often. He speaks daily to his mother, now 85, who divides her time between Toronto and Florida. Interviewed in his new Parliament Hill office—the historic corner suite designated for the leader of the official Opposition—a question about his ornate new digs sparks a memory from Hudson days. It seems Layton’s appreciation of Gothic revival architecture was primed when he was just 16, on a church-organized “Faith and Freedom” tour of Britain that took him, among other places, to the Westminster Parliament. “For two weeks, we went off in these funny little sleeper vans in the U.K. from campsite to campsite,” he says. “We toured important sites for faith and democracy. It was spectacular. Had my first cup of coffee!”

He’s beaming at the memory, and no wonder—it’s another glimpse into his charmed early years. If Layton sounds almost too sure sometimes about his ideas for change, it’s not because he’s ever been excluded, but because he carries the confidence that comes from always having the privilege of an inside view. The kid who first thrived at the Hudson Yacht Club, then took on its traditions, isn’t yet done trying to shake things up.

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