Jack Layton a Canadian visionary for social democracy

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By Marites (Tess) Sison, Anglican Journal

The Hon. Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP), had a “ great compassion” for the downtrodden, recalls a bishop. COURTESY OF NDP
The Hon. Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP), had a “ great compassion” for the downtrodden, recalls a bishop. COURTESY OF NDP

Read Jack Layton’s farewell letter here.

The Honourable Jack Layton, leader of the Opposition, had a “great compassion” for people in need. He was a doer who was deeply engaged in society and had a great vision of what Canada could be.

These are some of the things that Bishop Dennis Drainville, Anglican diocese of Quebec, will remember most about him.

Layton died at 4:45 a.m. on Aug. 22, after an 18-month battle with prostate cancer. He was 61. In the May parliamentary elections just four months ago, Layton led the New Democratic Party to win 103 seats, becoming the official Opposition for the first time in the party’s 50-year history.

“It’s a very sad day, indeed, not only for the nation, but for all those who knew him and called him a friend,” said Bishop Drainville, who met Layton when he was a newly-ordained priest and director of Stop 103, a non-profit agency that responded to the poor in downtown Toronto. Stop 103 was in Layton’s riding and they often consulted with each other. (Bishop Drainville won as an NDP candidate in the 1990 provincial election and then served as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario until 1993. He was elected diocesan bishop in 2009.)

The last election showed Layton’s “capacity to lead from strength, never vilifying an opponent, never putting people down but rather maintaining the high road,” said Bishop Drainville. His return to the House of Commons in a more powerful role was highly anticipated. “It would have been magnificent to see him…continuing the great fight to ensure that social democracy is something that can be realized in Canada.”

Layton was a delight to work with, said Bishop Drainville. “He was a fighter for those who had no advocate but he was also a man who could see the humour in everything.”

While he didn’t know about Layton’s personal religious beliefs, Bishop Drainville said he has always assumed that people who fight for social justice are those “who are motivated by a deep and abiding spiritual sense of the justice of God.”

In an October 2010 interview with Other Press, Layton said that the NDP had created a faith and justice commission to show that being motivated by religion to enter politics is not the “exclusive preserve of a far-right component of the population.” The NDP also believes that people of various faith backgrounds can work together, said Layton in that interview. “When we study the great religions of the world we see far more commonality than we do differences, especially when you look at the root,” he said.

Layton said he was a member of the United Church of Canada, but that he didn’t practice it “as frequently as I should.”

Layton’s greatest legacy is “to have been able to enthuse Canadians about the thought of what social democracy is all about,” said Bishop Drainville.  “There was no hesitation with Jack. He would strike out and do that which he thought needed to be done.”

Political leaders and ordinary Canadians also paid tribute to Layton. “I salute Jack’s contribution to public life, a contribution that will be sorely missed,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “I know one thing: Jack gave his fight against cancer everything he had. Indeed, Jack never backed down from any fight.”

The death of Layton has left “a serious void” in Canadian politics, said the leader of the Progressive Canadian Party, Sinclair Stevens.

Twitter has been abuzz with condolences from ordinary Canadians, reported the Toronto Star. “It’s like losing your favourite uncle,” twitted Sharon P. “His enthusiasm for Canada was a tidal wave that swept us all along, regardless of political stripe. An honourable man who loved Canada and all Canadians, a good man we can all be proud of.”

Born in Montreal on July 18, 1950, Layton had an impeccable political pedigree. His father, Robert Layton, was a cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government. His great grand-uncle,William Steeves, was a Father of Confederation. His great-grandfather, Philip Layton, came to Canada as a blind teenager from Britain and successfully campaigned for the federal government to grant a monthly pension for the blind And his grandfather, Gilbert Layton, was a Quebec cabinet minister under the conservative Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis.

Layton is survived by his wife, Olivia Chow, who is also a member of the House of Commons, and two children, Sarah and Michael.

The Office of the Prime Minister has announced a state funeral for Layton on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2 p.m., at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall.

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