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1 year on, how Jack Layton died still unclear

A year after his death Canadians are still in the dark about what actually killed Jack Layton, who mere weeks before dying had asked voters to let him lead Canada.

His family has held firm in its resolve to keep the precise cause of Layton’s death a secret. And Canadians in the main don’t seem to care; many roundly chastised journalists who raised questions in the period after Layton’s rapid decline and death last summer.

Widespread admiration and affection for the late NDP leader may be behind the difficulty the electorate seems to have in separating emotion over his passing from the issue at stake.

But if so, Canadians may be missing a key point about why people should care about the health of their would-be leaders, some experts say.

It’s not about attempting to sully Layton’s reputation or legacy. It’s not even about Layton. It’s about whether voters have the right to know if, to the best of their knowledge, politicians believe they’ll be able to fulfill the role they’re asking voters to give them.

Dr. Lawrence Altman has explored the health of U.S. political candidates for decades as the medical reporter for the New York Times.

He says it’s surprising that at this point in history a political leader could die of an undisclosed illness — and says it is unlikely American media outlets would have let the issue go easily.

“I think the Times has taken the position that this is information the public is entitled to know,” Altman says of the general issue of leading politicians’ health. Altman is researching a book he hopes to write about political leaders and their health status disclosure.

“My position is that there should be transparency,” adds Altman, who while still writing for the Times is also a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

“There’s no reason any illness should keep somebody from running for office. It’s up to the public to decide whether that illness interferes with the ability to carry out the functions of office or whether that person should be elected. But that’s up to the electorate. The issue to me is that the electorate should be fully informed.”

Questions still linger about the degree of information Canadian voters had about the state of the NDP leader’s health when they went to the polls in May of 2011.

Layton had disclosed a February 2010 diagnosis of prostate cancer, though he never revealed what form of treatment he received for it. (By contrast, former federal Health Minister Allan Rock disclosed he had surgery when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer while in office.)

And Layton was vague about a surgery he’d undergone to repair a hip fracture incurred while exercising in March 2011 — an unusual event in a seemingly fit man of his age.

When a shockingly gaunt Layton, his voice barely recognizable, announced in July 2011 that he was temporarily stepping aside to again fight cancer, he told Canadians the new battle was against a second, previously undetected form of the disease.

He declined to name it. And to this day, his widow, MP Olivia Chow, and his children have all declined likewise.

Chow’s says that to disclose what killed her husband would discourage people fighting that form of cancer. In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, she said she believes withholding the information is the right way to go.

“I think that (I’m) even more convinced that it was the right decision, that we don’t have to (say more),” she said.

“People know, it’s a cancer — It’s cancer cells. It’s not as if we’re not saying what he died of, he died of cancer. We don’t need to go into what kind of cancer because those people that have that kind of cancer will not react well and why inflict that on people?”

Chow says the only people who ask her about the cause of her husband’s death are reporters.

Journalists who have given voice to suspicions that Layton’s second cancer was really metastasized prostate cancer have generally been chided by news consumers.

Patrick Lagace, a columnist for Montreal’s La Presse, wrote a couple of pointed pieces on the issue.

“Readers were absolutely incensed that I would bring up the question. To most of those who did react, it was an entirely private issue,” he says in an email exchange.

“To some of them, which is shocking to me, if Mr. Layton did run knowing his odds were grim, well it was up to him and we had nothing to say. All in all, I’d say that a very large majority of my readers thought it was not a matter for reporters to discuss or question.”

Norman Spector, a former senior political aide and now a political commentator, says at this point, the cause of Layton’s death is a matter for historians.

Whether they’ll delve into it, or whether Layton’s family later chooses to reveal which form of cancer killed the popular leader, there’s no pressing public interest at this point, Spector says.

There was, however, a public interest before the election, he says. And there is something to be learned for the future.

“The lesson we should draw from this whole experience is that political leaders in Canada as in the United States should have regular health exams and should release that information to the public. That’s my view,” says Spector, who was chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Voters have a right to know if they are likely going to be led by the person seeking their support, he says.

“I think it’s important just as the parties have a responsibility to put forward their platforms and their commitments and their fiscal framework that we have a sense that the people we’re voting for are going to be there.”

In our system of government, a leader who steps aside due to ill health or who dies is replaced by their party, not the general public, Spector notes. So if the NDP had won the 2011 election, Canadians would have ended up with a new prime minister — picked by NDP party members — just two months after Layton had been sworn into office.

“If I’m voting Conservative, I want to know if it’s Stephen Harper or Vic Toews whose going to be the leader,” says Spector.

“I mean, (it’s) pretty important, right? Especially if Stephen Harper is making a commitment that he won’t open certain issues that somebody else might open.”

On Tuesday, Layton’s headstone and a bust designed by Chow were unveiled at Necropolis Cemetery in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood. His ashes will be scattered in a ceremony there on Wednesday.

With files from Joan Bryden and CityNews.ca staff