Layton shaped by years on Toronto council

Years before he stepped onto the national stage as the federal NDP leader, Jack Layton was an outspoken Toronto alderman known for his bushy hair and blue jeans.
Jack Layton appears in Toronto council chambers circa 1986. He would later trim the bushy hair and replace the glasses with contacts, a makeover that fuelled press speculation he had designs on higher office. ((CBC))

Years before he stepped onto the national stage as the federal NDP leader, Jack Layton was an outspoken Toronto alderman known for his bushy hair and blue jeans.

Born in a Montreal suburb and the son of a Tory cabinet minister, Layton came to Toronto as a young man in the 1970s to acquire his master’s degree in political science at York University.

But it wasn’t long before Layton the student put his political studies into practice.

At 22, he worked as a canvasser on the campaign of Michael Goldrick, who also happened to be Layton’s urban studies professor.

"I learned that job from these fabulous American draft dodgers who’d all come up," Layton told Maclean’s magazine in a profile published earlier this year. "They were Democrat anti-poverty activists, that sort of stuff, and they knew how to campaign."

Layton died Monday at his home in Toronto following a battle with cancer.

First elected to council in 1982

Layton first rose to elected office in November 1982 after several years of teaching at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (now Ryerson University). The 32-year-old unseated incumbent Gordon Chong in a downtown Toronto ward.

Layton’s win was largely aided by his ability to gain the support of renters — a growing group of voters that at the time was often ignored in big-city municipal races.

"Large and enthusiastic turnouts confirmed the wisdom of this strategy and Layton soon found himself supported by left-leaning sympathizers of all stripes," wrote a Globe and Mail profile headlined "A New Star Rising Over Left Field" and published in the months after Layton was elected.

The same profile also noted that Layton stood out among his new council colleagues.  

"A confirmed cyclist, Layton has finally acknowledged winter and is today driving to appointments in his late-model sub-compact."

Although Layton’s father Robert served in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s cabinet, it was clear the younger Layton was cut from a very different political cloth.

"Layton wears his NDP stripes with conviction," the Globe wrote. "He does not hesitate to agree with one supporter’s description of him as a socialist."

Though Layton was often brash, he could also be charismatic. His way with words made him a favourite for quote-hungry reporters.

He fought developers, spoke out for gay rights and was charged with trespassing while handing out pro-unionization pamphlets at a downtown Toronto shopping centre.

Barbara Hall, a council colleague of Layton’s during those years who would eventually go on to serve as mayor herself, recalls Layton’s office as a gathering spot for young students interested in politics.

"He was able to inspire people to be part of a movement with him," Hall told CBC News.

Layton was often seen wearing blue jeans, but in 1987 he made moves to change his appearance. A story in the Toronto Star said "Toronto's rebel alderman has gone Bay Street."

Jack Layton works the campaign trail in Toronto. ((CBC))

The scruffy hair took a trim, glasses were replaced with contact lenses and the jeans jettisoned in favour of "smartly tailored twill pants, tweed jackets, silk ties … and even the occasional blue suit" the Star reported.

The press made much of his new look and the makeover fuelled speculation, rightly as it would later turn out, that Layton had designs on higher office.

In 1988 Layton, who cycled everywhere, sued the city after he hurt his knee riding into a newspaper box on a downtown street. The injury forced him to cancel his planned honeymoon with then school trustee (now current MP) Olivia Chow.   

Layton also had his share of controversy. In 1990 reporters learned that he and Chow were living in a subsidized co-op building despite their six-figure income. The couple offered to pay extra rent, but bought a downtown house shortly afterward. A city report later cleared them of any wrongdoing.  

Many of Layton’s views during his time at city hall were unpopular. He was against construction of the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) and opposed Toronto’s bid to host the 1996 Olympic Games (it eventually failed).

A consensus builder

Hall said the media loved to portray Layton as a scrapper, always railing against one position or another, but she remembers his ability to inspire others into action.  

"There was always this sense that ‘these things are important and we can accomplish them together,’" she recalls.

In 1991 Layton ran for mayor but lost to June Rowlands.

He would go on to head the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and Hall believes it was in this role that Layton showed he was more than a simple spitter of sound bites.  

"He was a consensus builder in what is really a small-c conservative organization," she said. "He showed he had a real ability to work within a broader group."

Hall said the battles Layton found in council chambers helped serve him well as he rose to prominence in national politics later on.   

"For Jack it wasn’t a job, it was his life," said Hall. "He lived his politics."