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Jack Layton
Leader, New Democratic Party

Jack Layton didn't have a seat in the House of Commons heading into this election, but you'd never have known it by how often he made it into newscasts and newspapers.

The Liberals have labelled him "Say Anything Jack," but there's no denying that the 53-year-old NDP leader has been effective at earning media attention for a party that sat in fourth place in the House as this campaign began.

Jack Layton
NDP Leader Jack Layton proved effective at garnering media attention for his party, despite not having a seat in the House.  

"Seatless, he haunts the halls of Parliament for any scrum that will take him… Print journalists in particular like the media-savvy quotes Layton comes up with," CBC.ca commentator Larry Zolf wrote recently. He went on to warn: "The danger is that he'll be seen as a flashy gadfly and not a real leader of socialism at all."

Layton has flash aplenty, wearing NDP-orange neckties, buying TV ad time during this year's Academy Awards ceremony and convincing the Barenaked Ladies to play a concert for him to attract young voters.

The question is whether voters will consider that style exciting and fresh or verging on political grandstanding. The "grandstander" label was occasionally thrown at him in his past political life. As a Toronto city councillor, he and his wife, fellow councillor Olivia Chow, once donned black gags to protest being silenced by other Toronto councillors when they objected to a deal with Shell Oil, which at the time was under fire for its controversial operations in Nigeria.

Diana Swain profiles NDP leader Jack Layton. - Runs: 18:34VIDEO
Diana Swain profiles NDP leader Jack Layton.
(Runs: 18:34)
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Chow recently threw her own hat into the federal ring, announcing she'd seek the NDP nomination in a Toronto riding. She joins other intriguing candidates Layton has managed to reel in with his combination of style and substance. Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent is making an electoral comeback, for example, joined by newcomers like Monia Mazigh, the Ottawa woman who campaigned to have her husband Maher Arar released from a Syrian prison.

Layton profileAUDIO
Margo Kelly profiles NDP leader Jack Layton.
(Runs 3:17)

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An EKOS Research poll in late April suggested the NDP had the support of about 16 per cent of decided voters under Layton's leadership. That was far behind the Liberals at 41 per cent and the Conservatives at 29, but well ahead of the 8.5 per cent of the popular vote the party earned in the 2000 election, when it won 14 seats. The party's highest-ever seat total was 44, under Broadbent in 1988.

The only federal leader with a PhD, Layton gained real-world experience during his time in municipal politics to complement his academic experience. The university professor held a second job as a Toronto city councillor from 1982 until his election to the NDP's top job in 2003.

 Jack Layton at the age of 12
  A 12-year-old Jack Layton smiles for his school photo in Hudson, Que.

Layton started honing his credentials as an activist at an early age. In his teens he led a fruitless bid to have a youth centre built in his hometown of Hudson, Que. He would go on to immerse himself in anti-poverty issues, as well as quests for better public transportation and affordable housing. That last area of interest led him to write a book. Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis was published in 2000.

The same year, Layton became president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, giving him a position in which he could portray himself as a Toronto politician who nevertheless understood problems faced by people across the country. In the last year, he has also managed to win the respect of Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove, who had not support Layton for the leadership after Alexa McDonough resigned in 2002.

One wonders how heated the political conversations got in the Layton household over the years. Layton was president of his students' council in 1967 and announced in his yearbook that he intended to be prime minister some day. But his father Robert, who served two terms as a Tory MP under Brian Mulroney in the 1980s, might have questioned the routes he chose. Layton was briefly a young Liberal while he studied at McGill, but turned to the NDP in 1971, impressed by Tommy Douglas's opposition to the War Measures Act.

Winning the political jobs he wants has not always been easy. Running for the mayor's seat against June Rowlands in 1991, Layton came in second. He also went down to defeat as a federal NDP candidate in 1993 and 1997. Early polls have shown him running ahead of incumbent Liberal MP Dennis Mills in their Toronto-Danforth riding this time, however.

Layton has two children, Sarah and Michael, from his first marriage to childhood sweetheart Sally Holford. He married Chow in 1988.

RELATED READING:

Speaking Out: Ideas That Work for Canadians, by Jack Layton, published in May 2004 by Key Porter Books.

Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis, by Jack Layton, published in 2000 by Penguin.

Rebuilding Canadian Party Politics, by R. Kenneth Carty, William Cross and Lisa Young, published in 2000 by the University of British Columbia.


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