Jack Layton

Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada

Jack Layton is leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada and is the Member of Parliament for the riding of Toronto—Danforth in Ontario.

In the federal election held October 14, 2008, the New Democratic Party won 37 seats, an increase in seats compared to both the 2006 and 2004 federal elections. The NDP opposed the governing Conservative Party’s budget that was tabled in January.

The coalition agreement brokered in autumn 2008 between then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and Layton never came to fruition. The coalition, which had the support of the Bloc Québécois, emerged after the Conservative Party delivered its economic and fiscal update in November 2008. The opposition parties were critical of it because they claimed it lacked sufficient economic stimulus to deal with a downturn in the economy. In addition, it cut certain federal subsidies to political parties and proposed prohibiting public service strikes. However, Governor General Michaëlle Jean prorogued (postponed) Parliament at the request of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Layton became NDP leader in January 2003; however, he did not immediately seek election to the House of Commons, waiting instead until the 2004 general election. He won his seat in a hotly contested battle against long-time Liberal incumbent Dennis Mills. During his tenure as leader, Layton has helped the Party increase its presence in the House of Commons.

The Politics of the Left in Canada

Layton arrived on the national scene at a time when many, both within and outside the NDP, were seriously questioning the future of left politics in Canada.

Traditionally, the New Democratic Party organized itself around the labour and farm movements; the NDP fought for the protection of workers and farmers in the economy, and the provision of basic social services to the working classes, such as education and health care. In the latter part of the 20th century, however, left politics began to change significantly with the presence of feminists, environmentalists, cultural groups and opponents of globalization.

These “New Left” groups have challenged the policies and practices of traditional New Democratic supporters. Environmentalists often oppose labour and farmers on environmental policy, while globalization opponents often advocate decentralized forms of social cooperation, which clashes with the highly centralized and hierarchical organization of unions. Moreover, many on today’s New Left do not support the NDP, instead choosing either to support other alternatives, such as the Green Party of Canada, or not to participate in the democratic system at all.

This change in left politics, coupled with the decline in support for the New Democratic Party since its heyday in the late 1980s, when it won more than 40 seats in the 1988 federal election, has given rise to calls for a significant change in the party’s direction. Some contend that electoral success lies in moving away from unions and towards specific groups in the New Left. Others propose moderation in the left-wing message, in the style of the US Democratic Party or the UK’s Labour Party. As a community-based activist from outside the ranks of big labour, Layton may be able to attract New Left support, however he must, at the same time, counterbalance against the loss of big labour support.

Municipal Politician and Academic

The selection of Layton as leader of the New Democratic Party was somewhat surprising. While he had extensive municipal political experience, Layton had very limited qualifications on national issues. With the support of influential NDP party members, including former leaders Audrey McLaughlin and Ed Broadbent, as well as provincial party leaders in British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia, and the Yukon, Layton defeated seasoned, long-serving NDP MPs Bill Blaikie and Lorne Nystrom, to win the leadership.

Layton ran, unsuccessfully, as a New Democratic candidate in the 1993 and 1997 federal elections. Prior to entering federal politics, he was involved in Toronto municipal politics, on and off, between 1982 and 2003; he served as a city councillor and also ran for mayor in 1991, a contest he lost to June Rowlands.

As an elected city politician in Toronto, Layton gained notoriety for his outspokenness and left-wing activism. He opposed the city’s construction of the SkyDome, the stadium where the Toronto Blue Jays play baseball, and its bid for the 1996 Olympic Summer Games, arguing that public resources would be better spent on other priorities. He was also a strong rights advocate for AIDS patients and workers. Layton participated in several social initiatives, such as Canada’s first municipally sponsored AIDS strategy and The White Ribbon Campaign, a movement of men speaking out against violence against women. He was also involved in many environment projects, including the deep lake-water cooling (whereby cold water is pumped from the bottom of a lake as a heat sink for climate control systems) of downtown office buildings and the Better Buildings Partnership, which promoted higher efficiency in energy consumption.

Outside politics, Layton is an academic; he became a professor at Ryerson University while completing his dissertation. He then became an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Geography. Between his teaching positions at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, he also taught in the graduate program at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. Layton also continued participated in several community-based municipal movements in the Toronto area. In his life outside politics, Layton also operated an environmental consulting firm, and served as President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

A Personal Snapshot

Layton, who comes from a long line of politicians and activists, was born in Montreal in 1950, but grew up in the small town of Hudson, Quebec. His grandfather, Gilbert Layton, was a cabinet minister in Quebec’s Union Nationale government during the 1930s; he eventually resigned his cabinet position in protest of his government’s opposition to conscription in World War II. His father, Robert Layton, was an activist in the Liberal Party of Canada during the 1960s and 1970s, before joining the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in the 1980s. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1984 and served in the cabinet of Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Jack Layton completed his undergraduate studies at McGill University, where he was exposed to the left-wing ideologies and political activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Active in his university days, Layton took part in political science department sit-ins and campaigned for affordable student housing. He then attended York University where, in 1984, he graduated with a Ph.D. in political science.

Layton is a published author. In 2000, he published Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis, which focuses on the nature and extent of homelessness in Canada, and argues for a national housing policy in which the federal government would directly subsidize the housing of low-income families. In 2004 his second book was published; Speaking Out: Ideas that Work for Canadians, discusses practical ideas for addressing Canada’s social and environmental problems.

He is married to Olivia Chow, who is the New Democratic MP for the constituency of Trinity—Spadina. Layton has two children from a previous marriage.

Syndicate content