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2011 Year in Review: Jack Layton’s death creates uncertain NDP future

The biggest Canadian story of the year was undoubtedly the death of NDP Leader Jack Layton, who was recently named Newsmaker of the Year by The Canadian Press.

In the span of three months, the party went from winning the official Opposition status in Parliament to losing its charismatic, tenacious leader to another bout of cancer.

Many people were surprised when Layton and the NDP won 59 of 75 seats in Quebec, leapfrogging the Liberals in May to become the official Opposition party for the first time in its 50-year history. A year earlier the NDP polled about 12 to 14 per cent in the province and was a third place party only three weeks before the federal election on May 2.

But it was Layton’s appearances on Tout le monde en parle on Quebec TV and at a Montreal sports bar wearing a Habs hockey jersey and having a beer that helped him become the darling of Quebec.

“So things can turn on a dime in elections, and they did for the NDP in Quebec,” Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, told CityNews.

And they also turned on a dime afterwards. Appearing gaunt and sounding raspy on the afternoon of July 25, Layton held a short news conference in downtown Toronto, announcing he had been diagnosed with a second cancer and that he’d temporarily step aside while he received treatment.

He had previously been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009 for which he went public in February 2010. It was the same disease that afflicted his father, a cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney’s Tory government. At the time, he said, “Like my dad, I’m a fighter and I am going to beat this.”

During the shocking summer announcement, Layton recommended MP Nycole Turmel be interim leader and vowed to be back when Parliament resumed on Sept. 19. But it was one promise he couldn’t keep. His wife Olivia Chow and his two adult children issued a statement on Aug. 22, saying that Layton had died peacefully at his home. He was 61.

The family also released a death-bed letter that Layton wrote just hours before his demise in which he told Canadians: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.”

The emotion that his death stirred up was undeniable. Tributes came from all corners of the country. People immediately started leaving messages in chalk for Layton, a former Toronto councillor, on the walls and grounds of Toronto City Hall as well as condolences at his constituency office in the east end.

The prime minister offered a state funeral for the NDP leader, an honour given only to prime ministers. governor generals and cabinet ministers.

The mourning was televised nationally all week. Layton’s body lay in state on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and then in repose at Toronto City Hall for thousands to pay their respects before the state funeral was held at Roy Thomson Hall that Saturday.

Niagara Falls and the CN Tower glowed NDP orange in his honour after the funeral.

Meanwhile, talk quickly turned to who would be Layton’s replacement as NDP leader. Eight candidates have tossed their names into the hat, including party president and Layton confidante Brian Topp, Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair, Toronto MP Peggy Nash and Ottawa MP Paul Dewar.

Some political observers say the three to watch at the leadership convention in Toronto next March will be Topp, Mulcair and Nash.

“I have a feeling Topp and Mulcair will be near the top and Nash could win in the final ballot,” Wiseman said.

Robert Asselin, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa, said the party is struggling without Layton, and it shows in the polls. 

“He was a large part of the party. He was probably the party,” he said.

It won’t be an easy choice at the March 24 convention, he said. The NDP holds the Opposition status right now because of Quebec. Fifty-nine of its 103 seats are in that province. So the new leader would have to appeal to both English and French Canada.

“They just can’t afford to lose those seats,” Asselin said. “Otherwise, they become a third party again.”