Canada opposition leader Jack Layton dies after struggle with cancer

NDP Leader Jack Layton smiles during an interview with Lisa LaFlamme on budget day 2011. Layton, the beloved NDP leader, died Monday after a battle with cancer.

Jack Layton, the feisty leader of Canada’s opposition party who was at the height of his political career, died Monday after a battle with cancer. He was 61.

The New Democrat party issued a statement Monday morning, just weeks after a gaunt Layton held a news conference to announce he was fighting a second bout of cancer.

The party said Layton died peacefully at 4:45 a.m. ET (0945 GMT) today at his Toronto home, surrounded by family and loved ones.

Layton led his party to an historic win after his union-backed party took 103 seats, up from a previous 37, in the May federal election, gaining official opposition status for the first time in the party’s 50-year history.

He began the campaign just five weeks just after recovering from hip surgery which he said was unrelated to the cancer. He carried a cane and hobbled throughout. His health became an issue at start of the campaign, but Layton looked increasingly healthy and energized as the campaign progressed.

Layton announced in February 2010 that he had been battling prostate cancer. He lost a considerable amount of weight and his voice was very weak when he said in July that his battle with prostate cancer was going well but that recent tests showed he had a new form of cancer. He not did elaborate on what type of cancer was discovered.

His appearance shocked Canadians, who just a month before saw an energized Layton lead his party to the official opposition status. The New Democrats’ gains were attributed to Layton’s folksy, upbeat message.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he was deeply saddened by Layton’s death.

"When I last spoke with Jack following his announcement in July, I wished him well and he told me he’d be seeing me in the House of Commons in the fall. This, sadly, will no longer come to pass. On behalf of all Canadians, I salute Jack’s contribution to public life, a contribution that will be sorely missed," Harper said in a statement.

Born in Montreal, Layton was the son of a former federal Progressive Conservative cabinet minister and the grandson of a prominent provincial politician in Quebec. He had said though his father was a conservative, he truly cared about those less well off.

Layton was a career politician, a former longtime city councilor known to work tirelessly on behalf of the poor and homeless. He ran for mayor in Toronto and lost in 1991 after being criticized for living in subsidized housing and for opposing Toronto’s ultimately failed bid for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

New Democrat lawmaker Libby Davies said Canadians came to love Layton.

"He gave his life for this country," Davies said. "His commitment to social justice and equality and a better Canada in the world and in home, I think that’s how people saw him, they saw him as someone who deeply, deeply cared for people."

U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson to Canada expressed sorrow on behalf of the American people.

"I will never forget the image of Jack campaigning as the happy warrior. His energy, enthusiasm and passion for politics and for the Canadian people were undeniable," Jacobson said in a statement.

Layton was married to Hong Kong-born Olivia Chow, also a former Toronto city councilor, and now the New Democrat Parliament member for a downtown Toronto district. He has two children, Sarah and Mike, from a previous marriage. Mike is now a Toronto city councilor.

He is well known to Canadian journalists, many of whom were students of his at Ryerson University where he served as a part-time professor teaching city politics to students of its journalism school.

Funeral details have not yet been announced.


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