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Jack Layton made his political entrée at York

Jack Layton made his political entrée at York

Canada is in mourning for political icon and two-time York grad Jack Layton, who died early yesterday morning only three-and-a-half months after leading the federal New Democratic Party into official opposition. Layton (MA '72, PhD '83) was 61.

It is a sad day, said two of his York professors, political scientists Jim Laxer and Daniel Drache. Neither were surprised that the young Layton who enrolled in their graduate classes 40 years ago led the NDP to official opposition status in May for the first time in Canadian history. He was bright, curious, open-minded, engaging and unfashionably optimistic even then.   

Above: Jack Layton celebrates the NDP's new post-election status at the party's 50th anniversary in Vancouver in June


“When he walked into a room you immediately saw the tremendous intelligence of this person,” said Laxer yesterday in an interview. He remembers Layton in one of his graduate seminars on political economy in the early 1970s. “He was also a guy who loved to meet people and respected other people.  

“I knew as soon as I met him that he was someone very special and that he would do important things,” said Laxer, though he couldn’t have predicted how. Layton could have made a career as an academic, journalist or politician. 

Right: The young Jack Layton, academic

Layton enrolled in York in 1971 to pursue a master’s degree in political science after earning a BA from McGill University. In a 2003 interview following his election as leader of Canada’s New Democrats, Layton told York’s Universe magazine, a monthly published at the time, that he came to York because his McGill mentor Charles Taylor told him he’d meet some crackerjack political theorists – David Shugarman, Daniel Drache, Jim Laxer, David Bell (who became his mentor at York) and Fred Fletcher (who became his dissertation chair). And he did. 

Layton grew up privileged in Hudson, Que., a wealthy community west of Montreal. But as a teenager he had noticed how French kids were discriminated against in his community. And “I got involved through church and youth parliament in issues like apartheid, social justice, Medicare, the war in Vietnam,” he said in the interview. His interest in social justice and equity only intensified at McGill where, he said, “there was a gross distortion of wealth that struck me as so wrong.”  

Layton got his first taste of municipal politics soon after arriving at York. He took his first urban politics course with Mike Goldrick and was soon involved in Goldrick’s campaign for a seat on Toronto city council. “York became my entrée into what became my career,” Layton told Universe. A year before he completed his PhD in 1983, Layton won a seat on Toronto city council. He was a city councillor for the next 20 years, during which time he also taught at York and Ryerson. In 2003, as the federal NDP’s new leader, he told Universe: “I take what I learned at York and use it almost on a daily basis.”  

“Jack was a fighter for a whole lot of causes,” remembers Laxer. “He fought for the homeless, for the poor.” He was fighting for the environment when few people were. “He was the kind of guy who had huge optimism and didn’t have any use for fashionable pessimism,” said Laxer. “He had conviction that one could make a difference and change things. And he had huge energy and huge intelligence. You saw it in his fights at city hall and in his run for mayor.” After every setback, he never gave up. “He never lost that optimistic spirit.” 

In a message of condolence yesterday, York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri said the York community was "deeply saddened to learn of the passing of one of our own."  Layton’s "many contributions to public life were tremendous," Shoukri continued. "He was passionate about politics, and his commitment to social responsibility was unwavering. We were extremely proud that he was an alumnus of York University, and he will be missed by all those who had the pleasure of knowing him. His determination, tenacity and enthusiasm will forever serve as a model worthy of emulation by our students.”

Drache taught Layton a course in Canadian political economy.  

"Three things stand out about Jack," said Drache – his open-mindedness, his curiosity and the importance he placed on critical thinking in public life and social justice.  

“He saw that one of the avenues to political change came through new ideas,” said Drache. “And he saw the NDP’s legacy as the strategic vehicle for bringing new creative thinking from the margins to the mainstream in public life. It made perfect sense for him to identify with this movement and eventually become a fabulous campaigner for it. His ability to speak in plain language about big and small ideas made him in time a formidable campaigner certainly.”  

Left: Jack Layton in his 2011 campaign portrait

Layton also championed social justice. “People who were vulnerable, families in need, women and newly arrived immigrants – all these critical groups needed help and assistance to get on with their lives. Jack was a real believer in deep affirmative action to correct historical wrongs. I think this sense of social justice became the beacon in his life that guided all of what he did.  

“He had no time for neo-liberalism and its market fantasies, but neither was he particularly ideological,” said Drache. “He was a politician chieftain who was results- and evidence-driven with a strong sense of what was right, even if unpopular. He had a moral compass to his political strategizing and never abandoned it in the face of adversity.”  

Layton reframed this constantly, said Drache. “Jack was happy to look across the spectrum and mix and match policy ideas. He was always more of a pragmatist than a theorist when a grad student, and very independent knowing his own mind. Looking back it becomes very clear that as a young man he was capable of following his own star. He was less ideological than his contemporaries as a grad student at York. He was also clear about what he wanted to do. Jack was always strong and self-confident without being self-centred and egotistical.”  

Layton put it this way in his 2003 interview with Universe: “What’s most important is to get out and work on issues affecting people and to become totally engaged in your community. That’s the best route and the most legitimate route to becoming involved in politics. Some people go the other route and get law degrees, make connections with the rich and powerful. I prefer the [first] route.”  

A PhD in political science doesn’t hurt if you’re going to go into politics, Layton said. “I found it gave me a chance to really explore ideas like how to accomplish change in society. It taught me an enormous amount about how to think through public policy and consider issues in a thoughtful way. I couldn’t overstate the benefits of having that degree.” 

Right: Jack Layton, optimist

A turning point in Layton’s career was serving as president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities beginning in 2000, said Drache. “He dropped a lot of his left rhetoric as president of the federation and his effectiveness grew. He learned to work with people, to gather and actively build a consensus style of politics. That’s why he also appealed to Quebecers. He came across as a principled leader, a rarity in today’s rough and tumble world of parliamentary politics.  

“He will be sadly and hugely missed,” Drache said. “People esteemed Jack in a way they esteemed Ed Broadbent, Pierre Trudeau and Tommy Douglas. He won the hearts and minds of Canadians and could have been Canada’s prime minister. That’s the tragedy. He was the one person who potentially could have united left and centre Liberals and the NDP. The task will be all the much harder without him. Jack had a special style and people felt a personal connection to Jack. That showed in the unprecedented success of the NDP in the last election.”  

Laxer said: “Jack should have been opening that chapter that was the pinnacle of his career.” He had led the NDP to official opposition. “His breakthrough in Quebec was historic and has changed the country.

“What we have to do now," said Laxer, “is take his qualities of optimism and courage and take them to heart.” 

Layton leaves his wife, MP Olivia Chow. His son, Mike, earned a master’s degree in environmental studies from York in 2006, and has followed his father to Toronto city council. Layton also leaves a daughter and granddaughter.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer

Republished courtesy of YFile – York University’s daily e-bulletin.