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NDP Leader Jack Layton. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
NDP Leader Jack Layton. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

NDP's Jack Layton dies at age 61

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Canadian politician Jack Layton died at home in Toronto early this morning, in the company of family and friends. Layton's dynamic leadership vaulted the New Democratic Party to unprecedented success in Canada's most recent election this past May. The 61-year-old Layton stepped down as leader of the official opposition in late July to deal with a second bout of cancer. At the time, he said he hoped to be back when Parliament resumed in September.

Canadians from across the political spectrum are saluting Layton's contributions to his party and his country.

Lucy Martin has more.

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Lucy Martin
Ottawa Correspondent

If convention was any guide, Canada's most recent election would have been a contest between the Conservatives - under incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper - and the Liberals, lead by Michael Ignatieff. But this election took a number of historic shifts, largely thanks to Jack Layton.

Layton started out as a left-wing professor and city councillor in Toronto, before becoming leader of the New Democratic Party – which typically trailed in a field of four.

When the election was called in late March, Layton was just recovering from prostate cancer and also needed a cane after hip surgery. There were doubts he could endure an intense, cross-country campaign.

But Layton did more than endure. He regained his vigor, and emerged as the race's "happy warrior". His upbeat message took his party to an unprecedented second-place showing.

Many observers felt the turning point came in April's debates, when Layton challenged his Liberal rival, as can still be heard on YouTube:

Jack Layton: "I have to pick up on something Mr. Ignatieff said. He said before you have to walk the walk, and have to be a strong leader and respect Parliament. I've got to ask you then, why do you have the worst attendance record in the house of commons, of any Member of Parliament? If you want to be Prime Minister, you'd better learn how to be a Member of Parliament first. You know, most Canadians, if they don't show up for work, they don't get a promotion."

Stephen Harper went on to a decisive win. But Layton's populist appeal swept away both the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois, in an upset that completely altered Canada's political landscape.

If Layton's success was sweet, it was also heart-breakingly short.

By July 25th, a suddenly-frail Layton announced he was taking temporary leave, to face a second, unspecified cancer. Layton's determined optimism was so much a part of his image that his death this morning took many by surprise.

Today Layton is being hailed for his decades of public service and warmly recalled just for being Jack: a down-to-earth guy who showed up, did his job and left nearly everyone glad to know him.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm Lucy Martin, in Ottawa.

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