The real Jack Layton

An activist and an intellectual, Layton was the rare politician whose passion came from deep within

The real Jack

Christopher Wahl

About a month after he led the NDP to its election breakthrough last May 2, Jack Layton was still at a loss to explain what had really happened on the campaign trail. The game-changing outcome was plain enough: his New Democrats had vaulted into second place for the first time ever, ahead of the Liberals. But what alchemy had occurred in the minds of so many Canadian voters, especially in Quebec, for Layton’s personal appeal to lift his party to government-in-waiting status?

Layton, a meticulous political pro who never went into an interview without a firm fix on what he wanted to say, for once seemed stymied by the question. “I’d go into the crowds and people would stop and have a word. There were a lot of personal words—I don’t know,” he said when Maclean’s asked him back in early June what had been different this time around. “There was certainly enthusiasm, but something deeper. I haven’t put my finger on the emotions, but there were more emotions there than in previous campaigns.”

More than even he might have realized. After his death last week following his swift second bout with cancer, those emotions found release as a national torrent of grief. And Layton had applied himself in his last days to channelling the outpouring to come. In an extraordinary merging of the deeply personal and frankly political, he worked with his advisers to ensure that his death drew attention to the convictions that drove him in life. Both the farewell letter they drafted and the funeral they planned aimed to inspire social democrats. Friends and family had often said that trying to draw a line between Layton’s public and private sides was difficult. In his passing, they became indistinguishable.

From childhood and through his political career, Layton was known for his constant smile, boundless energy, and an at-times too obvious knack for drawing attention. Starting early last year, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, his dignified struggle with failing health erased any lingering suspicions that his showmanship covered a lack of substance or character. His first round of cancer therapy seemed successful, but visibly took its toll on a physique previously toned from bike riding and gym workouts. Early this year, just when he seemed to be rebounding, a mysterious hip fracture required surgery.

He would need a cane to get around during the spring election. With a practised eye for a prop, Layton turned it into a talisman, and his defiant campaign-trail vigour earned him new admiration. Even adoration. Layton felt the change, quite literally. “The way people would hug me as I went by,” he said. “It was different.”

The worst fear of the voters who embraced him came to pass. On July 25, a shockingly thin Layton, his voice dry as ash, held a news conference to say his doctors had discovered a new, unspecified cancer. He died on Aug. 22 at just 61. Its wrenching final chapter, though, only focused attention on a life in politics packed with every plot element—save a triumphant rise to power. Born to comfort, he championed those who hadn’t been, even from his early years. Eager to sell himself as a pragmatist, he remained unusually devoted through his life to the philosophy of the thinker who captivated him as an undergraduate. Dismissed by some as a shallow political performer, he touched many Canadians, especially at the end, in a way that left no doubt they believed the performance came from deep within him.

Layton was born in 1950 in Montreal, and grew up in the nearby bedroom community of Hudson. By all accounts, his upbringing was idyllic. His father, Robert Layton, was a prosperous engineer in a Montreal consulting firm; his mother, Doris Layton, the quintessential pillar of postwar home life. She outlived the eldest of her four children, attending his state funeral at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall. In that June interview, Layton described her as “an absolutely huge influence,” and said he still spoke with her every day. She had pushed him as a boy into competitive swimming, made sure he practised his piano, and encouraged his love of reading.

If his reserved mother shaped his character, his father more obviously influenced his personality. Robert Layton was an upbeat, can-do political animal. Drawn to then-premier Jean Lesage and the Quiet Revolution reforms that his provincial Liberals began enacting in the early 1960s, Robert became an avid Liberal organizer. Jack’s earliest political memories were of putting up Liberal posters. In 1984, Robert Layton switched parties to run successfully for Parliament for Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives, and went on to serve as a popular Tory caucus chair. He died in 2002.

But politics were hardly the Layton family’s sole passion. There was the United Church, where Layton’s dad ran a lively youth group called “the Infusers.” There was the Hudson Yacht Club, down on the sandy shore of Lake of Two Mountains, where Jack, as “junior commodore,” caused a small-town uproar one summer by inviting a bunch of less-affluent French kids to a weekly teen dance meant only for the sons and daughters of the club’s well-heeled Anglo members. But he wasn’t such a rebel that he didn’t climb hierarchies. “He was very socially adept,” says Richard Zajchowski, a close friend from childhood. “He would be elected president of many groups.” He liked causes. As a teenager, Layton led a push for a new youth centre in Hudson, circulating a petition and even having architect’s drawings made. Recalling how the town council patronizingly rejected his proposal, Layton’s eyes still flashed—fully 46 years later—with unfeignable anger.

The late 1960s were a good time to take that sort of passion to a university campus. At Montreal’s McGill, Layton threw himself into the era’s roiling protest politics. He grew a beard, marched for more French at his staunchly English school, and campaigned against condo developments in his low-rise student neighbourhood. He also came under the thrall of philosophy professor Charles Taylor, whose argument that productive clashes could result from ideological polarization strongly influenced Layton’s view of politics. “Back in the day, they used to talk about brokerage politics—smooth over all the differences all the time,” Layton said. “[Taylor’s] concept was that you want to bring out the different perspectives and have them stand in stark relief. Then what will emerge are the real solutions.”

Although many saw him as mainly an intuitive retail politician, Layton viewed himself as grounded in Taylor’s ideas and remained fascinated by political theory. He speculated, for instance, that the key difference between him and former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff lay in their intellectual foundations. He admired Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin, but detected in Ignatieff’s politics a bit too much of the British philosopher’s emphasis with safeguarding “negative liberty,” or the individual’s freedom to choose. Layton said he preferred Taylor’s way of framing “the more positive side of liberty,” particularly how individuals might fulfill or even surpass their own goals by joining forces with others.

Despite his bookish bent, Layton wasn’t cut out for academia. Completing his undergraduate studies at McGill, he moved to Toronto, enrolling in York University’s left-leaning political science graduate school, but more importantly plunging into the activism transforming the city’s municipal scene in the early ’70s. By 1980, after a stint teaching politics, he was a fixture in progressive circles and ready to take a run at office. A split on the left led to him losing a hotly contested municipal nomination battle on his first try. He learned his lesson, spent the next two years uniting his natural backers, and won a council seat in 1982.

So began a storied career at Toronto City Hall. Few outside the city, or even beyond his downtown home turf, fully grasped his rapport with many of its citizens. Outsiders gained a sense of that bond only from news accounts of the hundreds of chalk messages left scrawled on the concrete of Nathan Phillips Square, the seat of Toronto’s city government, to mark Layton’s death. “Jack Layton was the reason I started voting,” testified one. “Just not fair,” grieved another.

Layton was only 20 when he married his high school sweetheart, Sally Halford, but they split up in the early 1980s. His second wife, Olivia Chow, was a Toronto school board trustee when they met in 1985. He said he fell for her in “4½ minutes.” Their marriage and careers meshed. She went on to become, like him, a city councillor and then an NDP MP for a downtown riding. Looking back on their early years, Chow said the policies Layton spearheaded—banning smoking in public spaces, promoting recycling and renewable energy, creating bike lanes, protesting violence against women—tended to follow “a journey from being seen as out-there to obviously important.” After becoming chairman of Toronto’s board of health in 1985, he grasped the gravity of AIDS early, and pushed through a landmark $6-million fund to battle the new epidemic then devastating the gay community. “I was doing eulogies every week,” Layton said. “Boy, were we motivated.”

Even if his policy interests proved prescient, Layton’s critics tended to dismiss him as a photo-op maestro with an eye for the next fashionable cause. His reputation made him a doubtful fit for the federal NDP leadership when Alexa McDonough stepped down from the job in 2002. The party’s tiny roster of MPs—just 13 of them after a poor outing in the 2000 election—didn’t want him. Neither did many union bosses who wielded serious power in NDP circles. Layton won anyway on the first ballot on Jan. 24, 2003. He had recruited thousands of new members, and secured an invaluable endorsement from Ed Broadbent, the party’s widely revered former leader and elder statesman.

Layton was on the federal scene for only 8½ years. It seemed longer. Arriving at the start of a run of minority governments, he fought four general elections in short order. In 2004, he boosted the NDP’s seat total by a half dozen to a modest 19. Then to 29 in 2006, to 37 in 2008, and, finally, to 103 this year—including a startling 59 from Quebec, up from just one seat, as the Bloc Québécois vote collapsed. Along the way, he established a reputation as a Parliament Hill deal maker. His price for propping up Paul Martin’s beleaguered Liberal minority for a few months in 2005: $4.6 billion for NDP priorities like mass transit and affordable housing. He never tired of mentioning policies he and the NDP had pressed ruling parties into adopting, endlessly repeating the slogan that he liked “proposition, not opposition.”

His willingness to bargain with partisan adversaries struck his detractors as opportunistic. Admirers said he was just getting results. Tim Sale, who was housing minister in the Manitoba NDP government of former premier Gary Doer, witnessed Layton’s behind-closed-doors negotiating style up close, when the Toronto councillor, working through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, helped broker a national affordable-housing strategy in 2000. “He’s a good-looking guy, he looks you in the eye, he’s confident,” Sale said. “I think that sometimes intimidated people. I didn’t mind—I liked to make a deal, too.”

At times, however, Layton was accused of sacrificing too much for a political edge. His decision in late 2005 to vote with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to bring down Martin’s minority prompted Green party Leader Elizabeth May to accuse Layton of ignoring the crucial timetable of international climate change negotiations, which the Liberals were then pursuing. During the 2008 election, Layton opposed then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s carbon-tax plan for combatting global warming, to the dismay of environmental movement leaders. “I’m really shocked with the NDP with this,” said green icon David Suzuki. “I thought that they had a very progressive environmental outlook.”

Another file on which Layton risked a rift with his core supporters was gun control. Last year, facing a vote in the House on a Tory private member’s bill to eliminate the registry for rifles and shotguns, with Ignatieff compelling Liberal MPs to vote to keep it, Layton opted to let his caucus vote freely. (The bill was defeated.) For rural NDP MPs, some of them long-standing opponents of the registry, Layton’s flexibility showed he wasn’t captive to a city mindset.

For his anti-gun urban base, it was a testing moment. But Lorraine Segato of Parachute Club, the Toronto musician who sang her pop anthem Rise Up at Layton’s funeral, said on the rare occasions when he disappointed urban activists like her, he was given the benefit of the doubt. He had been ahead of the curve, after all, on issues from violence against women to housing the homeless. “Even if I disagreed with him,” she said, “it was hard for me not to rally behind him.”

Northern Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus cited Layton’s handling of the gun registry issue as just one example of him reaching out to hinterland voters. Angus remembered how Layton won over a tough crowd in little Earlton, Ont., early in his run for the NDP leadership. “We all thought Jack was a real city guy,” he said. “Then he talked about the alienation northerners feel, and people were all nodding. Then he said he’d travelled across Canada, and people feel alienated in Saskatchewan, and they feel alienated in downtown Toronto.” In the end, the dairy farmers stood to cheer.

Nowhere did Layton take more risks than in courting Quebecers. He controversially called for a law to make French the language of work in federally regulated industries in Quebec, just as it is in sectors under provincial jurisdiction. On any future referendum on separation, he defended the NDP position that a bare majority—50 per cent plus just one vote—should be enough to break up the country. He argued the lasting antidote to separatism was to appeal to the left-tilting sentiments of many Quebecers, urging them in his farewell letter to put their trust in “partnership with progressive-minded Canadians across the country.” Turmoil in Quebec had prompted Layton to join the NDP in the first place. During 1970’s October Crisis, he was inspired by federal NDP leader Tommy Douglas’s denunciation of the War Measures Act as an excessive assault on civil liberties. Still, Layton denied ever having felt sympathetic toward separatism—not even when he was first hearing what he remembered many years later as Réné Levesque’s “very powerful message about the people of Quebec being able to rise up.”

He was always quick to recall an old enthusiasm, or to gush about a new one. Skeptics thought all that excitement must be forced. His younger sister, Nancy Layton, who travelled with him on his 2008 and 2011 campaigns, said the “Smilin’ Jack” caricature of him as insincere troubled her. “It’s not an act,” she said. “He’s always been this way.” There’s evidence for that in the line beside his graduating-class high school yearbook photo: “He always wears a bright smile which displays his natural friendliness.”

In recent years, Layton and Chow made their three-storey Victorian semi in downtown Toronto equally a gathering place for family and friends and a political hub. After stuffing envelopes there for a few hours, volunteers might end up in a singalong with Layton playing guitar. Asked how they maintained boundaries between their private and public realms, Chow once said, “Why would we want to do that?” Layton even seemed to enjoy the fundraisers and black-tie affairs many politicians attend only because they have to. He would linger at an Ottawa function long after the obligatory hour, talking animatedly at the back of the hall with all comers.

If he was a born politician, Layton didn’t rely solely on instinct. He prepared. It was Ignatieff who risked many unscripted outings during the last election—and failed miserably. Layton, like Harper, stuck mostly to reading speeches from a teleprompter at well-orchestrated rallies. His signature moments were not improvised. “Bon Jack” didn’t just happen to be in a Montreal sports bar, raising a beer mug to the cameras, for the first game of the Canadiens’ Stanley Cup playoff run—a turning point in the NDP’s Quebec campaign. “Every trick in the book about getting media,” former deputy leader of the Ontario NDP Marilyn Churley once said, “I learned from Jack Layton.”

Layton’s canny, self-conscious side must be reconciled now with the frequently expressed public sentiment that he was the rare, genuine article. The two perspectives aren’t really contradictory. Layton had been smiling and campaigning for one cause or another since boyhood. That was him. He didn’t have to reinvent himself for politics. In that respect, even when he was reading a stump speech for the 20th time, or hitting his marks for a staged photo-op, Canadians were seeing the real man.

Of course, he was not just a campaigner. His two children from his first marriage spoke movingly at his funeral about their family life. Michael Layton is following his father’s path as a Toronto city councillor; Sarah Layton works for the foundation of Stephen Lewis, the former UN ambassador who delivered the main eulogy. When Sarah brought her daughter, Beatrice, not yet two years old, to campaign rallies last spring, “Grandpa Jack” would zero in on the toddler’s blond head from the podium, his smile spreading even wider than usual. He took to framing policy ideas in terms of what was best for her generation.

In his farewell letter to Canadians, he urged others battling cancer “to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.” But his main thrust was, as ever, unabashedly political. “Remember our proud history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind,” he told New Democrats. “Let’s demonstrate in everything we do in the four years before us that we are ready to serve our beloved Canada as its next government.”

It’s hard not to think that Layton must have felt horribly cheated, having come so far, not to have a chance to make another bid to reach the promised land of power. Back in June, though, he reflected on the path that took him from one warm, bustling home in Hudson to another in downtown Toronto. “Every blessing imaginable,” he said, summing up his life. “That’s it—every blessing imaginable is what I’ve had.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.