The man knew how to eat pizza. With the same seriousness of purpose and concentration that drove his political life, Jack Layton devoured two loaded slices of pizza pie at a hole-in-the-wall place on Rue St-Denis in bohemian Montreal. Jack stacked the slices one on top of the other, face in. I was captivated by the technique. Perhaps he sought to maximize his calorie intake to sustain a frenetic schedule. Perhaps he had devised a time-tested technique to keep tomato sauce and toppings out of his neatly-groomed, signature moustache.
It was a blustery March day in early 2003. The then-52-year-old former Toronto City Councillor and Ryerson political science professor was biding his time. Two months after being catapulted into the leadership of Canada’s New Democratic Party with a commanding 31,000 ballots (54%), in the party’s first-ever “one member, one vote” contest, Jack led his tiny 13-member caucus from the political sidelines. He viewed Question Period for the parliamentary visitor’s gallery and held press conferences on the House of Commons front steps.
It would be more than a year before the voters of Toronto-Danforth invested Jack with his own seat in Canada’s Parliament (as part of an emboldened yet compact 19-member caucus that wielded disproportionate influence with Paul Martin’s minority Liberal government). Two years after that, Jack’s caucus would grow to 29 members (in an election that landed the neo-con Calgary economist Steve Harper in the Prime Minister’s chair).
Five years after that blustery Montreal day, his caucus grew to 37 members – the second-best showing in the NDP’s history to that point – and days after the new parliament opened, Jack would enter into an agreement with the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois for a Coalition government to topple Harper.
That Coalition was not to be (as Harper successfully implored the Queen’s representative to lock the doors on parliament to avoid a test of confidence in the house). Nor, would it seem, was Jack destined to be Canada’s first socialist prime minister. The forces of nature and politics work in mysterious ways.
But what Jack Layton achieved during his eight years at the NDP’s helm – and, most notably, during his final six months in politics and life, as he battled at least two forms of cancer and hip surgery – has indelibly imprinted his name in the history of the Canadian Left and the broader political history of the country.
On May 2nd, 2011, Jack Layton led the NDP to a historic breakthrough, capturing one-third of the seats in Canada’s House of Commons (103 of 309 parliamentary seats) and an unprecedented 59 seats in Quebec (a province where the party had never before held more than a single seat). Buoyed by the quirky slogan “Yes We Cane” (a reference to his walking stick-turned-campaign ornament), Jack’s party usurped the Liberals (until very recently Canada’s “natural governing party”) as Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. For the first time in Canada, the socialists were the government-in-waiting, on the brink of federal power.
At this moment of triumph, both personally and for his party, Jack was publicly revealed in a most human form. Cancer had resurfaced, he informed Canadians two months after the May election, and with startling rigour. He was stepping aside, “temporarily,” for renewed treatment, with the hope of returning to the next session of parliament in the fall.
Jack Layton never recovered from this cancer and never again assumed his seat in the hallowed chamber of the “Peoples’ House.” He had fought the battle of his life in the 2011 election and that summer the warrior passed over to the other side. The Canadians mourned from coast to coast to coast as flags at government buildings and private business establishments flew at half staff. Political opponents lauded Jack Layton’s political achievements and hopeful spirit, even if they had “never supported the NDP party.”
I will remember Jack’s less public side, from the years we worked together as members of the NDP federal council. He was a complex personality, acutely aware of his surroundings and the balance of forces around him. Driven by big dreams but reluctant to speak about the world in ideological terms. To media pundits, this was a sign of Jack’s political “mellowing,” a supposed move from the hard-left posturing of his municipal career to more moderate, centre-left stances that characterized some elements of his tenure as NDP leader. I did not agree with every decision Jack made as NDP leader (including support for the extension of NATO’s Libya mission). But I will always respect Jack Layton’s tireless contribution to the Canadian Left and to public life, a contribution that likely contributed to the rapid deterioration of his health.
I will fondly recall that blustery March day at the pizzeria on Rue St- Denis. And I will strive, with that exemplary seriousness of purpose and concentration, to eat my pizza double-stacked.