OTTAWA — John Gilbert Layton wore dozens of different name tags in his decades of public service: activist, guitarist, father and finally, leader of the official Opposition.
Most knew the NDP leader by another name: Jack.
No other Canadian dominated the headlines like Layton in 2011, making him the clear choice for Newsmaker of the Year by editors and news directors participating in the annual survey of newsrooms across the country by The Canadian Press.
Layton received 90 per cent of the votes — one of the most overwhelming margins in the 65-year history of the CP Newsmaker voting. The next closest was Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who received just five per cent of the vote totals.
Also earning votes were Canada’s new female premiers, the protesters at the heart of the Occupy Canada movement, former auditor general Sheila Fraser and the Grande Prairie Composite Warriors football team.
“Jack Layton single-handedly shaped Canada’s political narrative in 2011, from the decimation of the Bloc Quebecois, to the marginalization of the Liberal party, to the utter vacuum left on Parliament Hill by his death,” said Brodie Fenlon, senior news editor, The Huffington Post Canada.
“We watched the drama of this scrappy underdog, cane in hand, pulling off an astonishing victory only to be felled months later before he could truly make something of it.”
The Canadian Press also conducted a parallel survey in conjunction with Yahoo! Canada to allow the public to make its own choices for Newsmaker of the Year. The public results were no less clear: it was Layton by a landslide.
The late NDP leader claimed fully half of the online votes cast, with hockey commentator Don Cherry a distant second at 16 per cent.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper garnered 10 per cent of the vote, narrowly edging the Occupy Canada protesters at 9.5 per cent.
That the public came to know Layton on a first-name basis wasn’t the result of a slick marketing campaign, though the 2011 election effort marked his slickest one yet.
His smiling face peered from every poster; NDP candidates — especially in Quebec — ran not on their names, but his.
“He’s the person responsible for the NDP’s status as the official Opposition, a status based on its landslide victory in Quebec and the near-disappearance of the Bloc Quebecois, which shook the entire sovereignty movement,” said Josee Boileau, managing editor of Montreal’s Le Devoir newspaper.
“The importance of Jack in this historic breakthrough — which is even more important than the fact Stephen Harper’s Conservatives now form a majority government — has become even more obvious since his death, an event that has completely weakened his party.”
The brand that Jack built didn’t come through sterile focus group testing in boardrooms. It came from years of being himself.
As a teacher at Toronto-area universities, he would invite students into his home or take them out for a night of spirited debate at the local pub.
As a city councillor, he and his wife Olivia, who also later became an MP, would ride their tandem bicycle through rallies during the dog days of Toronto summers and in the pelting rains of fall.
“In some ways, Jack Layton is like all of us,” Chow said “He’s your next door neighbour — your next door neighbour who wants to do something that’s good for the community and for the country, and he happens to be in a position to do a little bit of that. So I think people felt they lost someone that they know.”
He was known for wearing funny hats into fundraisers, chatting with workers in line at the Tim Hortons, and bringing his guitar out for folk-song sing-alongs on campaign planes and in meeting rooms across the country.
His was a rare persona for the NDP, said Vicky Smallman, a long-time NDP organizer who first met Layton during his years on Toronto’s city council.
“Usually in the NDP, you’re a policy wonk or you’re an organizer and often there is huge conflict between the two,” Smallman said.
“But Jack was able to bring those sides together in a way that obviously had good results.”
A combination of his charisma and political savvy helped to fuel the NDP machine. The party had just 19 seats when he became leader in 2003; they won 29 seats in 2006 and 37 in 2008.
But something happened this past May, when an orange wave swept Quebec and helped push the party to 103 seats, making Layton leader of the official Opposition.
So what changed in 2011, Layton or the voters?
“He was at his best, he was at his most comfortable, so I think both,” said Brad Lavigne, who directed the NDP’s national campaign.
“I think the country knew Jack. I think there was a connecting between what he was offering and what they were looking for.”
It was a victory 50 years in the making, Layton said on election night.
“I think of all the people who came before us, the millions of men and women who believed so passionately in a more fair society and they refused to give up, often in the face of overwhelming odds,” Layton said.
They were words that would come to personify Layton’s own final moments.
”Jack Layton pulled off the tour de force of the year in politics,“ said Gaetan Chiasson, news director at Acadie Nouvelle in Caraquet, N.B. ”But we will remember mostly his dignity as he faced death as well as his message of peace and hope.”
Layton revealed in 2010 that he had prostate cancer and vowed to fight the disease.
Earlier this year, a hip fracture left him using a cane and fuelled speculation that he wouldn’t be able to handle the rigours of the spring election trail.
But he’d been so energetic out on the campaign that when he appeared at a press conference in July to announce he was battling a new form of cancer, the nation collectively gasped at the visibly weakened, creaky-voiced man who was already a shadow of his former self.
Layton, true to form, pledged to fight on. He died Aug. 22 at the age of 61.
“One could never imagine such a cruel and heart-wrenching end for a man who for so long dreamed so big. Yet even in his final testament, he urged others not to despair,” said Murray Langdon, news director at CFAX in Victoria.
“He pleaded for supporters to continue to build on the party’s strong showing. Above all, he asked for Canadians to join together in making the country better.”
Layton’s final message to Canadians, delivered in a letter that was published on the day of his death, quickly turned into a rallying slogan for a grieving nation.
“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair,” Layton wrote.
“So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
His words became a mantra for a grieving nation, scrawled in chalk outside Toronto city hall, where thousands of people lined up to pay their last respects.
Even when the rains washed away the words, people wrote them anew. Impromptu shrines built out of cans of Orange Crush soda sprang up outside the Parliament buildings. Niagara Falls and Toronto’s CN Tower were bathed in orange lights.
The condolence books made it clear how far Layton’s reach had extended.
Sikhs, Burmese, union workers, academics, doctors, aboriginals, young Canadians, new Canadians, Quebecers, NDP and Tory voters all wrote in to vent their grief.
Even those who professed to be skeptics could not help but admit their admiration.
“To the extent that he sincerely was campaigning for what he believed in and he may have literally sacrificed his own life for it,” said Dan Leger, director of news content for the Halifax Chronicle Herald newspaper.
“You have to stand there and go, ’Wow, that is profound,’ and I think a lot of people picked up on it that way.”