PROFILE: Jack Layton, the NDP fighter
When he entered a Toronto hotel conference room to speak to reporters on Monday, it was clear that Jack Layton's health was once again a serious concern. The NDP leader was noticeably thinner and his voice weaker than it was during the campaign for the May 2, 2011, election.
Layton was diagnosed with prostate cancer in late 2009 and went public with it in February 2010. It's the same disease that struck his father (a former Cabinet minister in the Brian Mulroney government) and Layton vowed to face it with determination and optimism.
At times he looked gaunt and would be forced to wipe a sweaty brow while surrounded by reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons, but through it all, Layton barely slowed down. He's known to be a workhorse, and the nickname "Energizer Bunny" is applied to him more often than to any of his political rivals.
A hairline fracture of his hip threatened to interfere with his notoriously hectic schedule, but Layton was back on Parliament Hill within days of having hip surgery in early March. A walking cane was the only clue he was recovering from the surgery.
But this latest public appearance was different. Less than three months after a breakthrough campaign that landed Layton the job of Opposition leader, Layton said that while his prostate cancer appears to be in check, he has been diagnosed with another non-prostate cancer. He wouldn't go into details except to say that he would be taking a leave of absence as NDP and Opposition leader. He also said he expects to be back in the House of Commons when Parliament resumes in September.
Layton said he started to feel stiffness and pain towards the end of the most recent session of Parliament and that he underwent tests at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. Those tests revealed that he was now dealing with another form of cancer.
Layton said he needed to take some time off to focus on this latest medical battle. He's stepping aside to take care of his health, he said, but expects to be back in the House of Commons in late September when Parliament is scheduled to resume.
Walking in their footsteps
Born: July 18, 1950, in Montreal.
First elected to Parliament: 2004
Profession: Political writer, municipal councillor, politics professor; BA from McGill University in 1970, MA and PhD from York University in 1984.
Family: Married to fellow MP Olivia Chow. Father of two and grandfather.
Jack Layton was raised in a political family. His great-granduncle William Steeves was a Father of Confederation. His great-grandfather Philip Layton came to Canada from Britain as a blind teenager and helped pressure the federal government to bring in a $25-a-month pension for the blind. His grandfather Gilbert Layton was a Quebec cabinet minister under Maurice Duplessis and his father Robert Layton was a Tory cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney's Conservative government.
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. He's also the author of Speaking Out: Ideas That Work for Canadians.
Layton studied politics at York University, earning a PhD there, then began practising it in 1982 when he was elected to Toronto city council. He made a run for mayor in 1991 and lost.
Two years later, he tried to make the jump to federal politics, following in his father's footsteps, and lost. He tried again in 1997 and was turned back once again.
Layton kept fighting. He was elected leader of the federal NDP in 2003, and third time running was the charm: he won a seat in the House of Commons in 2004. Layton defeated Liberal Dennis Mills and has represented Toronto-Danforth since.
His wife, Olivia Chow, joined him as an MP in Ottawa in 2006, when Layton led the party to 29 seats.
The breakthrough campaign
The NDP had yet to come near power, except in 2008 when the opposition parties threatened to form a Liberal-led coalition, with the intention of bringing down Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minority government. The Liberals promised that its MPs, and likely Layton himself, would have cabinet positions if the Harper government was toppled but it did not work out that way. Amidst high drama in Ottawa, Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean agreed to prorogue Parliament and a confidence vote was avoided.
In the first two elections under Layton, the NDP climbed from 18 to 37 seats and just over 18 per cent of the popular vote — up noticeably from the years under his predecessor, Alexa McDonough, but still behind the 44 seats the party won with Ed Broadbent at the helm in 1988.
Layton was a centre of attention on Parliament Hill during the weeks leading up to the 2011 election campaign.
It was predictable that the Liberals and Bloc Québécois were not going to get what they wanted in the federal budget that was due to come down in late March, so speculation turned to whether there would be enough in it to entice the NDP to support it.
Layton had made his list of demands clear to the Conservatives — pension reform, more doctors and nurses, lifting the GST from home heating costs, help for seniors and action on the environment — and the budget included spending on some of those fronts.
But it wasn't enough. The NDP leader surprised many observers when he immediately rejected the budget after it was delivered March 22. Layton said the Conservatives failed to make the right choices that would benefit hardworking Canadians. He said he was willing to work with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to amend it, but his offer was rebuffed.
Layton then threw his support behind the Liberals' motion of non-confidence that ended up triggering the election before a vote on the budget could. The election was on and he was on the hunt for as many votes and seats as possible.
Layton's budget demands became the focus of the NDP's campaign.
The breakthrough came on May 2 when the NDP wound up with 103 seats, 59 of them in the orange tide that swept Quebec. In the party's 50th anniversary year, Layton became the first NDP leader to also be Opposition leader.
In his personal battle with cancer, and his political battle to become prime minister, the common factor has been his determination.