NDP Leader Jack Layton in a typical pose visiting Edmonton during the campaign of 2011 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Don’t mourn! Organize! — Joe Hill, Swedish-American union organizer

Canadians still mourn the loss of Jack Layton, Joe Hill’s wise strategic counsel to social activists notwithstanding.

Mr. Layton on one of his last visits to Edmonton during that campaign (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

I first made that observation on this date in 2011, when we learned the terrible news that Mr. Layton had been struck down by cancer at the age of 61, still in the prime of his political life.

His loss came as a profound shock, even to those of us who feared the worst after that news conference less than a month earlier at which he announced he was stepping down as leader of the Opposition to battle a new onslaught of the disease.

Not quite four months before, Canada’s New Democratic Party leader had led the social democratic party to its highest tide in the House of Commons, 103 seats, supplanting the Liberal Party of Canada as the Opposition. 

Many felt that had the campaign lasted a few days more, the Orange Wave he surfed could have carried the NDP to victory. Many felt that had he lived, the next election would have sent him into Canadian history as Prime Minister Jack Layton. He was beloved by many Canadians, respected by many more.

For those of us who have heard Mr. Layton speak, let alone who have met and talked with him, it is very hard to comprehend that someone so full of life could be alive no more.

On the theory that the best mourning is done by retelling happy tales that illustrate the character of our departed comrade, let me tell you about my peculiar relationship with Mr. Layton, the only leader of a national political party ever to have picked up the telephone and made a cold call to me, to ask me for an unusual favour, no less.

Actually, this is a bit of a fib. He had a political aide call first, to make sure I’d be waiting by my telephone when he phoned. But the aide, a very polite young person whose name, I’m afraid, has long been lost, refused to reveal the topic of the upcoming call.

Mourners at Mr. Layton’s memorial at the Alberta Legislature Building, on Aug. 24, 2011 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

This happened in 2008, and to tell you the truth, with a federal election expected eventually, I thought Mr. Layton might be about to ask me to be a candidate in one of those remote Alberta ridings presumed then as now to be a lost a cause for the NDP.

In the event, however, Sunny Jack astounded me with another request entirely. Would I consider becoming, he asked, the poet laureate of the NDP?

OK, maybe the word laureate never left his lips, but without a doubt the phrase poet of the NDP was uttered more than once.

This turned out to be the brainchild of a mischievous Toronto business journalist and teacher named Kimberly Noble, a former colleague of mine at the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business who apparently had Mr. Layton’s ear on certain matters. It seems she had persuaded him of the potential political uses of light verse on current topics and given him the idea I was just the guy to dash off doggerel on demand.

Of course I said yes, although I’m sorry to report that nothing much came of this cheerful scheme. Presumably cooler heads prevailed in the busy months leading up to the great achievement of May 2011.

On the other hand, Mr. Layton consistently responded, politely and swiftly, when I misused his private Parliamentary email address and sent him questions for the enlightenment of this blog’s readers, so all was not for naught.

Alas, this blog was the only place my first and only effort for Mr. Layton ever saw the light of day …

Election Eve

We’ve heard the pitches, promised goals
Put forth by Tories and by Libs.
Why are they sinking in the polls?
Perhaps because they’re mostly fibs!
Now that they know they can’t relate
Because their plans, revealed, are seen
To be a failure in debate,
They hope to get us voting Green,
It’s their last chance, the only way
To beat the surging NDP
And save their butts on Voting Day.
We hope that all Canadians see:
To get the country back on track
It’s time to vote for Layton, Jack!

Here we are – a long, strange decade later – at the start of another national election campaign when, as the spinmeisters from all of Canada’s major political parties tell us, almost anything could happen. 

The New Democrats have had a couple of leaders since Mr. Layton, and in ways that are hard to quantify, the present one reminds of lot of us of the original.

Obviously, as the rhyming summary above suggests, not everything is the same in 2021 as it was in 2011. The Greens are being touted by no cynical strategist as a hurdle in the way of the NDP. 

Neither the Tories nor the Libs are really sinking in the polls at this moment – the claims of party partisans notwithstanding. All the movement in the first week of this campaign seems to have been within a normal pollster’s margin of error. If someone is to sink, they haven’t sunk just yet. 

But if they’re not surging, the NDP seems to have some buoyancy at least, and, as readers will notice, the present leader’s name will fit quite smoothly into that final line. 

Perhaps in the next few days Canadians, unlikely as it might sound, will really decide …

… It’s time to vote for Jagmeet Singh!

NOTE: This piece draws heavily on the post I published in this space on Aug. 22, 2011, just hours after we received the news of Mr. Layton’s death. DJC

Join the Conversation


  1. I think Jack Layton was pretty good at trying to make Parliament work together. Had he still been around, we would be seeing a different government in Ottawa. It was so close.

  2. In many ways the near-victory of Jack Layton and the NDP on the federal scene was both a great achievement and a illusion.

    On the one hand, Layton found his best footing and pushed ahead like no other party leader. The Liberals and Michael Ignatieff were uninspiring in their not-quite CON roles (they supported Harpo at every turn) while Harpo and the CPC were alluding to the destruction that they were certain to cause. Layton and the NDP, on the other hand, stepped up and offered another vision of Canada, a more equitable, just, and considerably freer Canada than had existed. Social-democracy had a chance and Layton was leading the charge.

    Layton prowled Canada and preached his vision, attacked the true enemies of Canada (the corporations and establishment political parties) Both Harpo and Michael “Bela Lugosi” Ignatieff were often on the sharp end of Layton’s acerbic wit and cunning analysis of their own shortcomings. During that debate, where Layton was chastising Harpo for “not having a leg to stand on” and then offering his own cane in case Harpo needed it, was a golden moment.

    But the dream was not to be.

    The NDP formed the opposition thanks to the complete collapse of the BQ in Quebec and the partial collapse of the Liberals in Ontario. But it was Harpo that got the majority and so began the four-year nightmare. Layton passed away soon after and the dream was never realized, if it even had a chance.

    Which brings us to the 2021 Election and the very profound fear of a CPC government, with Jason Kenney as its power broker. I like Jagmeet Singh. More often than not, he is the smartest, most honest guy in the room, approaching all those issues and placing in the hardest light. But the fear that a rush to the NDP and their vision of a better tomorrow would lead to another CON nightmare? Most likely it would.

  3. Hoping for some guidance here. Usually when my interpretation of events is extremely different from everyone else’s, it turns out that I am missing important context. I actually think of the late Mr. Layton as having set the NDP back substantially. In my memory, Mr. Layton kept pushing the NDP as being an actually electable party, whereas before the conventional wisdom had held that the NDP is not electable, but serves an important role in Canadian politics as a source of progressive ideas for Liberals to poach and as a voice guided by ideology, not by cynical electoral calculations.
    At any rate, after Mr. Layton’s passing, the membership of the NDP voted for Thomas Mulcair, who I think would have been a fantastic Liberal candidate. I think Mr. Mulcair did some very effective work, particularly cross-examining Mr. Harper, but I think that the rank and file of the NDP membership knowingly set their principles aside in the name of political expediency when they elected Mr. Mulcair. I think this allowed Mr. Trudeau to run on the platform the NDP should have run on, then welch on the parts that were not convenient for him.
    It also has me second guessing today’s NDP. The decision to elect Mr. Mulcair would have been made by the party’s membership, from what I understand. So this wasn’t a small group of elites turning their backs on what the NDP used to stand for, it was the party membership as a whole.
    Now we have Mr. Singh, who I quite like and, barring the unforeseen, intend to vote for. I actually have quite a lot more faith in Mr. Singh than I do in the NDP party apparatus, because to my mind there has never really been an accounting for the party’s decision to betray their social democrat roots and run under a neoliberal.
    In conclusion, I think I either must have missed important context or perhaps I’m misremembering something. I would welcome anyone who can clarify for me why I seem to be the only person in Canada who remembers Mr. Layton as The Guy Who Led The NDP Astray. Thanks and have a great day!

  4. Jack simply moved the NDP towards the centre to gain support and take up the vacuum left by the neocon neoliberal austerity Chretien-Martin MBA Liberals.
    Worst of all, he dumped the NDP’s anti-NATO policy. Pragmatic, maybe, and popular in the day, but in light of Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, it was and is the correct path to follow.

  5. The greatest Prime Minister we unfortunately didn’t get, I fear there is no place in the current version of the federal NDP for someone like Jack.

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