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.
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.