By RON FANFAIR
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has offered to accord the late leader of the Official Opposition, Jack Layton, a state funeral and the family has accepted. This is the first time in Canada that a leader of the Opposition has died in office so there was no precedent as to protocol. The funeral will be held on Saturday in Toronto.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) head for the past eight years succumbed to cancer last Monday morning at his home in the presence of his wife Olivia Chow, his children Mike and Sarah and other family members. He was 61.
Layton led his party to unprecedented heights in last May’s federal elections. The party won 103 seats and in the process relegated the Liberals to third place for the first time in its history.
The NDP, which held just 36 seats in the last Parliament, captured 58 of the 75 Quebec seats on their way to becoming the official opposition for the first time.
“This is a very sad time,” said New Democrat Zanana Akande, the first Black woman elected to Ontario’s legislative assembly and the first Black woman to serve as a cabinet minister in Canada. “We have lost a dedicated, determined and sincere politician. They are very few.”
A York University graduate with a doctorate in political science, Layton taught at Ryerson University before entering politics.
Ryerson’s president Dr. Sheldon Levy said the university is saddened by Layton’s loss.
“Jack was a true friend of Ryerson,” he said. “His political legacy and commitment to social justice will inspire students for years to come. As a teacher, his passion for knowledge and his enthusiasm for politics had an impact on a generation of Ryerson students.”
During a visit to Ryerson four years ago, Layton – who was elected to Toronto city council in 1982 – extolled the downtown university’s virtues.
“Teaching at Ryerson is among the happiest of my times,” he recalled at a campus event to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the university’s public administration program. “I am a big believer in Ryerson. I love the connection teachers have with students who are connected to the community. This promotes learning because they learn from the community.”
YWCA chief executive officer Paulette Senior, who ran for the NDP provincially in 1999 and federally a year later, attended a memorial rally for Layton last Monday at City Hall.
“Jack was a very unique man who lived and breathed politics,” said Senior. “It was his passion. He was one of the few politicians who walked the talk.”
Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath said the party has lost a leader, mentor and a friend.
“Jack Layton taught Canadians a new kind of politics,” she said. “He inspired a generation of voters with his principles of compassion and fairness and equality. He set an example. He brought us together. He spoke to all Canadians, in the cities, in the North, in the country and on the coasts.”
Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) operations coordinator Antoni Shelton said he will remember Layton for his grassroots activism and appeal.
“While he was a professor and he had political-elite pedigree, Jack was a man of the people who worked for all people regardless of colour or class,” said Shelton who was the NDP York West candidate in the 2007 provincial elections. “He was one of those rare politicians who I believe was not in politics for power. For him, it was about people and issues and not position.”
Layton’s funeral will be held at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Saturday. His body will lay in repose in Ottawa until Thursday and then at Toronto City Hall on Friday and Saturday morning. The funeral, which will be open to the public, starts at 2 p.m.