John Gilbert Layton was born in Montreal and raised in nearby Hudson, Quebec. The son of Doris and Progressive Conservative MP Robert Layton, Jack was the first of four children.
When his parents were looking to increase attendance at their Sunday school, 14-year-old Jack helped to change up the programming and filled the room weekly with young people from across Hudson.
Even as a teenager, Jack was stepping up. He was elected student council president at Hudson High School, In 1969, he was elected the prime minister of the Quebec Youth Parliament, and at York University, where he completed his master’s degree and later his Ph.D., Jack headed up the graduate students’ association and got involved in municipal politics.
Jack’s commitment to equity and appreciation for what others are going through, grew stronger while at McGill. He was inspired by the political philosopher and McGill professor, Charles Taylor and was drawn to get more active in a variety of causes, including defence of the French language and access to housing for all. Jack would go on to teach at X University, York University, and the University of Toronto.
Jack married his high school sweetheart Sally Halford. During their 14-year marriage, the two had two children, Mike and Sarah.
After hearing a speech by Tommy Douglas denouncing Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s use of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis as an extreme overreach, Jack’s decision to join the NDP was sealed. It was 1970 and Jack signed his first NDP membership card.
Never afraid of a challenge, Jack was first elected to the Toronto City Council in a long-shot campaign in 1982. He would spend most of the next two decades standing out as a strong voice and a recognized advocate in Toronto municipal politics with a particular focus on housing, protecting the environment and fighting for everyday people. Layton was elected as the President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in 2001.
In 1985, Jack met Olivia Chow. As he said, “I fell in love with Olivia in four nanoseconds. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into but I knew I was smitten from day one.” They were married in 1988, and from the beginning – in activism, municipal and federal politics, and in everything else – the two were inseparable and spoke every day, regardless of where their busy lives took them.
Recognizing that too much of the work being done to end violence against women, put the onus on women themselves, in 1991, Jack co-founded the White Ribbon Campaign to encourage men to take responsibility for ending male violence against women.
In 2003, Jack was elected leader of the federal NDP on the first ballot. In the next federal election, he became MP for Toronto–Danforth. Over the next four elections, under Jack’s leadership, the party quadrupled its national vote and grew from 13 MPs to 103 - the largest New Democrat caucus in the party’s history.
Day in and day out, he showed a rare passion, determination and skill. Both a fighter and bridge-builder, he never lost sight of why he was involved in public life. People across Canada noticed and he turned the New Democrats into a real political alternative, reshaping Parliament and giving hope to millions of Canadians.
In 2005, Jack used his influence in the minority parliament to rewrite Paul Martin’s budget. He successfully diverted $4.6-billion from corporate tax giveaways to important priorities like affordable housing, education, foreign aid and public transit.
Jack consistently found ways to work across party lines to get results for people – on job creation, affordability, health care wait times and fighting climate change. In 2008, Layton was instrumental in bringing about the Prime Minister’s apology to survivors of Indian Residential Schools.
True to his roots, during his time as leader, Jack made the people of Quebec a priority. In 2011, Jack lead a New Democrat breakthrough in Quebec and, with 59 Quebec MPs, Jack’s team emerged as a force for Canadian unity.
During the 2011 election, the work that Jack had been doing on the ground – connecting with people – for years paid off. People believed in him, trusted his vision and, following the election, Jack formed the largest opposition party in over three decades and became the first leader of the federal NDP to form the Official opposition.
On July 25, 2011, Jack announced he would be taking a temporary leave of absence from his post to fight a newly diagnosed cancer.
August 20, 2011
Tens of thousands of Canadians have written to me in recent weeks to wish me well. I want to thank each and every one of you for your thoughtful, inspiring and often beautiful notes, cards and gifts. Your spirit and love have lit up my home, my spirit, and my determination.
Unfortunately my treatment has not worked out as I hoped. So I am giving this letter to my partner Olivia to share with you in the circumstance in which I cannot continue.
I recommend that Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmel continue her work as our interim leader until a permanent successor is elected.
I recommend the party hold a leadership vote as early as possible in the New Year, on approximately the same timelines as in 2003, so that our new leader has ample time to reconsolidate our team, renew our party and our program, and move forward towards the next election.
A few additional thoughts:
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 must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.
To the members of my party: we’ve done remarkable things together in the past eight years. It has been a privilege to lead the New Democratic Party and I am most grateful for your confidence, your support, and the endless hours of volunteer commitment you have devoted to our cause. There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause. But that cause is much bigger than any one leader. Answer them by recommitting with energy and determination to our work. Remember our proud history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind. Let’s continue to move forward. Let’s demonstrate in everything we do in the four years before us that we are ready to serve our beloved Canada as its next government.
To the members of our parliamentary caucus: I have been privileged to work with each and every one of you. Our caucus meetings were always the highlight of my week. It has been my role to ask a great deal from you. And now I am going to do so again. Canadians will be closely watching you in the months to come. Colleagues, I know you will make the tens of thousands of members of our party proud of you by demonstrating the same seamless teamwork and solidarity that has earned us the confidence of millions of Canadians in the recent election.
To my fellow Quebecers: On May 2nd, you made an historic decision. You decided that the way to replace Canada’s Conservative federal government with something better was by working together in partnership with progressive-minded Canadians across the country. You made the right decision then; it is still the right decision today; and it will be the right decision right through to the next election, when we will succeed, together. You have elected a superb team of New Democrats to Parliament. They are going to be doing remarkable things in the years to come to make this country better for us all.
To young Canadians: All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada. Young people have been a great source of inspiration for me. I have met and talked with so many of you about your dreams, your frustrations, and your ideas for change. More and more, you are engaging in politics because you want to change things for the better. Many of you have placed your trust in our party. As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.
And finally, to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.
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. And we’ll change the world.
All my very best,
Before passing away on August 22, 2011, Jack left a letter to Canadians. He encouraged all of us to have dreams that last longer than a lifetime and closed with an inspiring message.
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.
And we’ll change the world.