All one has to do to get a sense of the late Jack Layton is look at the nicknames given to him by the Canadian people.
To the French, he was “Le Bon Jack,” to the English, “Smilin’ Jack.” He was the kind, happy face behind the federal New Democratic Party since becoming its leader in 2003.
“He was a fine man, very easy to speak to, articulate very affable,” Grand Falls-Windsor resident John Whelan said of Layton.
Whelan is the former provincial NDP party president and has been on the provincial NDP executive for over a decade. Whelan first met Layton in Gander when he was running for party leader.
“Too many New Democrats, I guess because we’re always…fighting to change the world, often look so dour and serious, and here was our leader whose default expression was a smile,” Whelan said.
During last May’s 41st federal election, it was that smile and charm that wooed the Canadian people into a historic and unprecedented Canadian election that changed the political landscape. The moustached man with a cane won over the hearts of Canadians.
The so-called orange wave saw an almost literal takeover of Quebec, the near eradication of the Bloc Quebecois, and a huge increase in orange seats in the rest of the country. The NDP won a record 103 seats, not enough to form a government, but enough to shove Liberal party out of second place and make the NDP the official opposition.
“He had a unique ability to rally the troops,” said Whelan.
Smilin’ Jack was on top of the world.
That is, until that haunting July press conference.
On July 25, a gaunt, weak looking Layton – a stark contrast from the healthy looking pink cheeked man who danced on stages and rallied crowds of thousands just months before – addressed Canadians. In a raspy, almost inaudible voice, he attempted to sound hopeful as he told a shocked nation he’d be stepping away from politics; that he had developed a new form of cancer. He was a fighter, he said, and he hoped to be back in action in his new role as leader of the opposition by the time the House of Commons opened in the fall.
“I don’t think during the election Jack had any notion he wasn’t going to be leading the party,” said Whelan. “There was no thought during the election that he was a man in poor health. By all reports, his decline in health was pretty precipitous.”
That conference was the last time Canadians heard form Smilin’ Jack. On Aug. 22, 2011, Layton’s death was announced to Canada.
After a year of mourning and rebuilding, how has Layton’s legacy, and his death, affected Canadians?
Following Layton’s death, it was widely speculated in the media that perhaps the new infatuation with the NDP would be a one time thing, and that the loss of their leader would be a blow to the party’s support.
That definitely wasn’t the case in Newfoundland and Labrador, which saw the most NDP seats ever following October’s provincial election.
While Whelan doesn’t discount the incredible impact Layton had on voters and the New Democratic Party, he said he thinks the party embodies a lot of the ideals and values that made Layton popular.
“(His death) was a great loss, clearly. Federally, the party is definitely holding its own, and it appears to be gaining ground. Provincially, we’re at the top of the polls right now,” said Whelan. “Right now provincially, I don’t think there’s a sitting Tory MHA who should feel confident in their future electoral success. I think the people are ready for a change.”
With a new leader, surging polls, and the role of official opposition, Whelan said the NDP has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
“We have a new leader now, Thomas Mulcair, and he’s doing a fine job,” he said “But you can’t replace somebody like Jack Layton.”
Member of Parliament for Bonavista-Gander-Grand Falls-Windsor, Liberal Scott Simms, said Layton’s presence is missed on Parliament Hill.
“I always found Jack to be personable on all levels. When I ran into Jack in St. John's several years ago, he spent more time talking to my young son than me, I thought that was a great testament to his character,” said Simms. “He spoke to all he met with openness and enthusiasm. I truly miss him.”
Even after a year, Canadians of all political stripes are still coming to terms with a Canada without Jack Layton, and the brand new political landscape of the country.
“It was hard for everyone,” said Whelan.
He added that Layton’s final letter to Canadians, released shortly after his death, has been a source on inspiration for many in the months after his death.
“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair,” the letter read. “So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”