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

Canada mourns NDP leader Jack Layton

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Canadian politician Jack Layton died at home in Toronto early Monday morning, surrounded by family and friends.

Layton's dynamic leadership vaulted the New Democratic Party to unprecedented success 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

Normally, Canada's most recent election would have been a contest between the Conservatives - under incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper - and the Liberals, then lead by Michael Ignatieff. But the race produced some profound shifts, largely thanks to Jack Layton.

Layton began his career as a left-wing professor and city councillor in Toronto. He took the helm of the New Democratic Party in 2003, gradually building that party's electoral results.

When an election was called this past 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. He emerged as the race's "happy warrior" while pledging to fight for the interests of ordinary working families. The NDP began to surge in the polls.

Many observers felt a 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 did achieve a decisive win. But Layton's personal appeal swept away both the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois, producing 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 spirit was so consistently upbeat that his death early Monday morning took many by surprise.

Supporters and rivals alike are now praising Layton for his personal warmth and decades of public service.

Shortly before he died, Layton composed a letter to be released if he did not recover. In it, he laid out goals for the future of his party, encouraged others facing cancer and spoke of his own guiding philosophy. His closing words were:

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

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