A man on a mission

Jack Layton stood in the House of Commons in early June 2009 and was in a feisty mood in the midst of a political crisis over a shortage of medical isotopes in the country.
NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks at a pro-coalition rally in Toronto on Dec. 6, 2008. ((Chris Young/Canadian Press))
Jack Layton stood in the House of Commons in early June 2009 and was in a feisty mood in the midst of a political crisis over a shortage of medical isotopes in the country.

He demanded Conservative Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt apologize after tapes of inappropriate remarks she made about the issue were made public.

The minister didn't apologize when prodded by the leader of the federal NDP and others during question period.

"What the hell is wrong with these people?" asked an exasperated Layton.

Vital Signs

Born: July 18, 1950, in Montreal.

First elected to Parliament: 2004 to House of Commons.

Profession: Political writer, activist, municipal councillor, politics professor; BA from McGill University in 1970, MA and PhD from York University in 1984.

Personal stuff: Married to fellow MP and before that fellow councillor Olivia Chow. Likes to ride his bicycle to media events.

That question appears to sum up the NDP leader's dealings with the other major federal parties as he struggles to get his party into a position of power — and not just power sharing — in these days of minority Parliaments. It's also a sign of the nature of "Jack," as he is called by many of his supporters.

It's no surprise he is the way he is after rising through the rough and tumble world of municipal politics in Toronto to eventually take over leadership of the NDP on Jan. 25, 2003.

Some of the Toronto-Danforth MP's techniques, mind you, have left him open to the "grandstander" label that was occasionally thrown at him in his past political life. As a Toronto city councillor, Layton and his wife, fellow councillor and now fellow MP Olivia Chow, once donned black gags to protest being silenced by other Toronto politicians. At the time, they were objecting to a deal with Shell Oil, which was under fire for its controversial operations in Nigeria.

Layton has other challenges now, like how to grow the number of seats his party holds. (The NDP has 37 after the federal election in October 2008, seven shy of the high gathered while Ed Broadbent was leader.) He also has to forge an identity with Canadians across the country beyond that of a party the Liberals and the Conservatives often look to for support in the climate of minority government in Ottawa.

Walking in their footsteps

Ask Layton where he gets his activism from, and he tells you the story of his great-grandfather, Philip Layton, who came to Canada from Britain as a blind teenager and developed a successful business tuning and selling pianos.

NDP Leader Jack Layton and his wife MP Olivia Chow celebrate on stage at his election night headquarters in Toronto on Oct. 14, 2008. ((Frank Gunn/Canadian Press))

From that base, he founded the Montreal Association for the Blind (forerunner of the CNIB) and helped create one of Canada's first social programs. In the 1935 federal election, in the midst of the Depression, Philip Layton secured a pledge from the two main federal parties that whoever won would bring in a $25-a-month pension for the blind, many of whom were destitute and selling pencils on the street. If the new government didn't follow through, the senior Layton said, he was going to show up at Parliament's door with as many sightless people as he could muster, holding their canes.

Skip ahead a couple of generations, and you can see the similar styles. From his father (Robert Layton) and grandfather, cabinet ministers in Brian Mulroney's Conservative government and Maurice Duplessis's Union Nationale regime in Quebec, respectively, Layton inherited the political gene. From his great-grandfather, he took that feel for the underdog and the dramatic gesture.

It's a technique he used over and over again in his career as a Toronto municipal councillor. He alternatively threatened and cajoled his way into getting official sanction for such things as curbside recycling, bike lanes and a downtown windmill. Since being elected leader of the NDP six years ago, Layton has been trying this out at the federal level. In spring and fall 2006, he propped up Paul Martin's Liberal minority during a couple of crucial votes.

At budget time, he wrangled an additional $4.6 billion in social spending from the government in exchange for his party's support. But it didn't last: the Conservatives cancelled almost all the programs when they took over.

Under Layton's leadership, the NDP has yet to come near power, except after the 2008 election when Stephen Harper's Conservatives attempted to cut taxpayer-funded party financing and delayed an economic stimulus package in the midst of a global financial crisis. That spurred the opposition parties to form a Liberal-led coalition, supported by the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, they hoped could bring down the minority government.

The NDP had won just over 18 per cent of the vote and 37 seats in the election, and the Liberals promised that its MPs, and likely Layton himself, would have cabinet positions if the Harper government was toppled in December. It did not work out that way, however, as Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean, amidst high drama in Ottawa, agreed to suspend Parliament avoiding the confidence vote that could have taken down the Conservatives.

In June 2009, election fever rose as Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff took on Prime Minister Stephen Harper over employment insurance. A summer election was avoided after the two leaders met for the first time in many months and decided to study the issue together.

Layton and the NDP criticized the leaders' approach to the EI issue, a bread and butter one for their base of support, but were left on the sidelines during the talks. He even stood up during question period and referred to Ignatieff as Harper's deputy prime minister.

Change over power

The NDP is usually squeezed at election time by the Liberals in Ontario and in the Maritimes and by the Conservatives in the West. But, as Layton told a Maclean's interviewer in 2003 as he was seeking to make the jump from municipal to federal politics, the NDP leader is "interested in change, not power."

Many commentators wondered whether Layton's penchant for grandstanding, and such accoutrements as his snazzy orange ties, would hurt him in the eyes of the public. But in both the English- and French-language TV debates in 2004 and again in 2006 and 2008, he came across as a serious and deliberate performer.

Under Layton, the NDP has climbed from 18 to 37 seats and just over 18 per cent of the popular vote. That is up noticeably from the years under his predecessor, Alexa McDonough, but still a far cry from the 44 seats the party won with Broadbent at the helm in 1988.

Chow joined her husband in Parliament after the 2006 election after losing in 2004 (both have been running federally since the mid-1990s), making them one of only two husband-and-wife teams in the House of Commons and a unique duo in their own right. Their downtown Toronto home has been, over the years, a lively mix of political causes and family (grown kids from a previous marriage and an elderly parent).

Layton gained real-world experience during his time in municipal politics to complement his academic credentials. He remained a university professor with a second job as a Toronto city councillor from 1982 until his election to the NDP's top job. More importantly, from a networking point of view, he also headed up the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for a time, a group that comprises virtually all the country's mayors and deals with the issues that are of most concern to them.

Activist roots are showing

Layton started honing his credentials as an activist at an early age. In his teens in the 1960s, 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 fights 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, which was published in 2000.

One wonders how heated the political conversations were in the Layton household when he was growing up. Layton was president of his student 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 and junior minister under Mulroney in the 1980s, might have questioned the political path his son chose. Layton was briefly a young Liberal while he studied at McGill University but turned to the NDP in 1971, impressed by Tommy Douglas's opposition to the War Measures Act.

Winning has not been easy. Running for the Toronto mayor's seat against June Rowlands in 1991, Layton led early only to finish a hard second. He also went down in defeat as a federal NDP candidate in 1993 and 1997. Even as the leader of the NDP in the 2004 election, he garnered just five percentage points more than incumbent Liberal MP Dennis Mills in voting in the Toronto-Danforth riding. In 2008, however, he won by 15 percentage points over the Liberal contender.

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