Jack Layton’s mother makes her pick

Nobody saw this one coming. Doris Layton, mother of the late NDP leader Jack Layton, this morning endorsed her son’s former national campaign director, Brian Topp, for the New Democratic Party leadership.

For me, it’s fascinating to have this octogenarian wade into the fray. She has not been an overtly forceful political presence. When I interviewed Jack Layton and other family members and friends for a profile of him last spring, every description of his mother fit the portrait of the quintessential postwar homemaker. Her talent for needlepoint came up repeatedly.

Yet nobody I talked to, including Jack Layton, spoke of Doris Layton in patronizing tones. His sister, Nancy Layton, described their mother this way: “She’s a woman so comfortable in her own skin and life. She’s a bit of a rock for the rest of us.” In what turned out to be the very last months of his life, Jack Layton told me he was still speaking with her daily, and called her “an absolutely huge influence.” He said she had convinced him a few years before of the NDP’s potential to broaden its vote, which traditionally skews young, to draw in more pensioners.

Doris Layton comes from the formidable Steeves family, descended from 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 commendably to lobby for better care for the mentally ill.

It was she who nudged Jack’s father, Robert Layton, toward the provincial Liberals in the Quiet Revolution days of the early 1960s. Nancy recalls her mother attending a tea in support of the local Liberal member of Quebec’s national assembly, Paul Gérin-Lajoie, and was impressed enough to encourage her husband to meet him. It was a consequential bit of wifely advice: Bob went on to be a stalwart Liberal organizer, before switching to the federal Conservatives and becoming a Tory MP under Brian Mulroney in the 1980s.

Perhaps because his father was such an obvious political animal, perhaps just because of his last name, the Layton side of Jack’s family gets more attention. Among other things, his paternal grandfather, Gilbert Layton, was a cabinet minister in the conservative Unional Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis. Still, Doris Layton’s father, Jack Steeves, was more of a direct influence on the future NDP leader. “Grandpa Jack,” an Imperial Tobacco vice-president known for choosing his words carefully, lived in Hudson part of the year with the Laytons, and was remembered by his namesake grandson with a sort of reverence. They hung out in his workshop and shot pool together.

So the Steeves side made a big difference in Jack Layton’s life. It seems apt to me that such a tangible reminder of this key element of his biography should surface, however unexpectedly, in the race to replace him.

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