Alberta NDP leaders in shock at Layton's death

Alberta NDP leaders are reacting with disbelief to the news of Jack Layton's death, saying they can't believe how quickly the tide turned from a jubilant election outcome to utter sorrow.


  • NDP Leader Layton dies at 4:45 a.m. ET at home in Toronto
  • Was battling his second cancer
  • Urges Quebec MP Nycole Turmel continue as interim leader

On election night in May, when his party made a historic breakthrough and became the country's Official Opposition, NDP Leader Jack Layton told assembled faithful in Toronto that "spring is here, my friends, and a new chapter begins."

But sadly, that new chapter would not last long for the man who led the New Democratic Party to 103 seats in the House of Commons, its most successful federal election result ever.

Layton died early Monday morning at his home in Toronto from his second bout of cancer.

Vigil at legislature

The provincial NDP and Edmonton MP Linda Duncan have planned a candlelight vigil for Wednesday night at the Alberta legislature. The public is invited to pay respects to Jack Layton, and speakers will include Duncan, Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason and former provincial party leader Raj Pannu. People will gather starting at 7:30 p.m. MT. 

Alberta NDP leaders reacted to the news Monday with sorrow and disbelief, saying they can't believe how quickly the tide turned from a jubilant election outcome, to a frail-looking Layton's announcement in July that he was stepping aside temporarily as party chief to combat his disease, and finally to his death.

"I'm completely devastated. It was completely unexpected," said a solemn Linda Duncan, Member of Parliament for Edmonton-Strathcona and the NDP critic for aboriginal affairs.

"Of course we were all totally hopeful that Jack would pull through because Jack's so strong, right, he always was for everybody."

'There was a great respect for Jack, and even if you didn't agree with him with everything, I think people respect him'—Former Alberta NDP leader Ray Martin

Duncan said Layton was the reason she got into politics in the first place, and it was thanks to his remarkable leadership that the NDP had such a strong caucus.

Alberta NDP leader Brian Mason said Layton impressed Canadians with his courage, fighting spirit and humour in the face of adversity.

"He was an inspiration to all who believed in a more just, open and equitable society," a visibly emotional Mason said. "He embodied hope for meaningful and progressive political change in Canada. He showed us that it was possible."

Mason, a former Edmonton city councillor, met Layton 15 years ago when he was a member of Toronto city council. The two men became friends and used to meet up at conferences. Mason later chaired the Alberta campaign when Layton ran for party leader.

"I think the tragedy is that this man could have and very likely would have become the Prime Minister if this illness had not taken him away from us," Mason said.

Edmonton-Strathcona MP Linda Duncan says Jack Layton is the reason she got into politics. (CBC)

Former Alberta NDP leader Ray Martin was Opposition leader in the provincial legislature for eight years in the 1980s and '90s, and ran twice federally in the last three years.

He said he thought Layton appeared ailing when he told the media a month ago about his latest cancer diagnosis, but his "never-say-die attitude" convinced Martin that the NDP leader would be back in the House of Commons in September. 

"This is a terrible shock, not only to me, who's, you know, ran twice federally under his leadership, but to all New Democrats, but even more than that to all Canadians," Martin said. "Because I think there was a great respect for Jack, and even if you didn't agree with him with everything, I think people respect him, so this is a tough day for everybody."

Martin received a letter from Layton earlier this month after he lost his wife to cancer.

"For him to take the time and write this beautiful letter, this is above and beyond the call of duty," Martin said. "This is a great man. We all know what he is as a political leader. But this to me shows what a human being he was."

Alberta party leaders pay tribute

The leaders of every Alberta political party issued statements Monday, paying tribute to Layton and offering condolences to his wife, Olivia Chow, and the family.

"Jack was an enthusiastic and passionate politician who held strongly to his convictions during his long career in public life," Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said. "On behalf of my wife Marie, my thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Olivia Chow, and the entire family during this difficult time."

"Canadians from coast to coast, myself included, were inspired by the courageous and energetic campaign he wagered last May. In that campaign, Canadians saw a tough, determined and dynamic leader who loved his country and the people he represented," said Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith.

"May he be remembered as the man Canadians got to know like never before this spring — a passionate democrat, a principled leader, and a great Canadian."

"Whatever his or her political affiliation, no Canadian can deny that Jack Layton lived to serve his country and his fellow citizens," said Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann. "His was a unique voice and a unique vision, and it was always clear that his primary motivation was the well-being of all Canadians. He tried to build a better country, and for that, we salute him."

"Mr. Layton was a personal inspiration for me. The work that he did at a municipal level in Toronto coupled with his unswerving commitment to the politics of hope and optimism rather than that of fear and anger has led the way for many of us that are committed to building a better future for all Canadians," said Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor.

"He showed us that optimism, creativity and imagination can and should exist in politics. That housing, poverty and violence against women are important issues that affect our day-to-day lives. That post-secondary education should be robust and that tuition should not be a burden to young Canadians ... thank you, sir."

'Please don't be discouraged'

In a letter to Canadians written Saturday, two days before he passed away, Layton thanked the tens of thousands of people who had written to him to wish him well in his battle.

"Unfortunately my treatment has not worked out as I hoped," he wrote. "To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live their lives, I say this: Please don't be discouraged that my own journey hasn't gone as well as I had hoped…. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future."

He urged all Canadians to work for a "better, fairer, more equal country."

"This sums up Jack, right?" Duncan said. "I mean his chief of staff saw him on Saturday, and she said there he was still, the same strong Jack, telling us to continue on with the same strength and determination, to build a better world. I mean that's Jack. There he is on his death bed, and he's thinking about other people."

Layton with chief of staff Anne McGrath during a campaign stop in Edmonton in March: 'In airport waiting rooms, in elevators, people would come up to him and share very personal stories about their own experiences with cancer,' she said. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Anne McGrath, the chief of staff, who herself ran for the Alberta NDP in a 1995 by-election in Calgary, said that visit showed Layton in his element as they discussed how the party could carry on after him.

"I spent about four hours with him on Saturday, because one of the things about Jack Layton is that he liked plans, and so he was always challenging us to come up with options," she told Global TV.

"So what we had to talk about was the upcoming session of Parliament, the possibilities for a leadership convention, how the caucus was doing, how the session would go if he wasn't going to be there, the caucus retreat, the party and the plans for the party.

"So it was very much a discussion about the future and what the future would hold if he wasn't here to be part of it with us."

Brian Topp, the party president, was also at that meeting, in the living room of Layton and Chow's Victorian duplex in Toronto's Chinatown neighbourhood.

Layton arrives with NDP president Brian Topp at the July 25 news conference to announce his new cancer diagnosis. Topp met with Layton two days before he died. (Nathan Denette/CP)

"It was kind of a typical session with him in a way. Whenever he faces a big issue, he always does the same thing. It’s 'Assemble the team!' And so that’s what we did on Saturday," Topp recalled.

"What he wanted to talk about were the options before him. He had not given up — he was still Jack Layton, he was still hopeful, he was still optimistic. But he knew that he was very ill indeed, and he wanted to talk about what would happen if he didn’t pull through."

Political scientist Keith Brownsey said no matter one's political stripes, the cane-toting Layton had charisma, and his death marks a sad day for Canadian politics.

"Jack Layton was a powerhouse in this country, He managed to take the moribund New Democratic Party from literally 13 seats to 103 in the last half-decade or so, a remarkable achievement by anyone’s measure," said Brownsey, who teaches at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"He spoke sincerely, he spoke to issues that affected average Canadians, he looked out for Canadians."


  • The candlelight vigil for Jack Layton is taking place Wednesday at the Alberta legislature. An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated the event was on Monday.
    Aug 22, 2010 3:50 AM MT