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Aug
22 2011

Jack Layton (1950-2011)

Syndicated from: Steve Paikin

Like most Canadians, when I watched Jack Layton's news conference last month, and saw him looking so gaunt and sounding so frail, I said a little prayer and wished him well in his quest to beat his new cancer.   I also looked at my wife, who lost her father to cancer, and who works in the health care sector.  She shook her head and said softly: "He is not long for this world."   Even over TV, she recognized all the same symptoms she saw in her father. And while we all wanted to believe Layton would undergo treatment and be back in the House of Commons in September, she knew better. And sadly, she was right.   I first met Jack Layton almost 30 years ago. I was a Toronto City Hall reporter for CHFI and CFTR and he was a rookie city councillor, having just staged what was considered a major upset over incumbent Gordon Chong.   But there was nothing rookie-ish about Layton. He did his job with the panache of a seasoned pro. He was masterful at capturing media attention for the causes he believed in, and he championed many of them (AIDS, homelessness) before most.   And despite playing the role of de facto leader of the opposition to Mayor Art Eggleton's majority on council, he wanted to be known for more than just opposing.    Once, for a radio documentary I was doing, I hung out in his office for a day, just to watch him do his job.  He was different from the obstreperous, a little-too-aggressive, in-your-face politician he was at council meetings.  He'd work the phones, trying to bring different factions together to find a solution to a particular problem in his ward. It was a side of Jack Layton few people saw.   As he became a more seasoned politician, Layton lost some of the more aggressive edges that made many voters suspicious of him. He transformed himself into the likeable, happy warrior we saw during the federal election campaign earlier this year.   As the fight against his cancer, his hip surgery, and that iconic cane he used all became part of his story, the suspicions dissipated. He connected as never before, winning 30% of the total votes in that May 2, 2011 election and more than 100 seats in leading the NDP to official opposition status.    It was the best ever showing for the party and it would never have happened without Layton.   At the Ontario NDP's provincial council meeting in June, the provincial leader, Andrea Horwath arrived at her hotel, checked in, then turned around to see her federal counterpart standing there.   "He was beaming and full of energy," Horwath said today. "He gave me a big hug and said, 'We did it. You can do it too.'"   Questions about leadership succession and the future of the NDP will inevitably be asked in the days ahead. Layton referred to it himself in a "final letter to Canadians" he penned shortly before his death.    But today, the country remembers a fighter for social justice, who was taken from that battle far too soon.   "Sometimes, the world has a way of breaking your heart," Bob Rae, the Liberal leader and one-time New Democrat said today. "I think a lot of us feel that way today."   Jack Layton never served as an MPP at Queen's Park, and yet the flag on the south lawn of the Ontario Parliament Building was at half mast.   "We just felt it was the right thing to do," Speaker of the Legislature Steve Peters told me.      (We'll explore Jack Layton's life and legacy tonight on The Agenda, live at 8 pm, repeated at 11 pm on TVO).

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