EDMONTON — Alberta politicians celebrated Jack Layton's legacy Monday, saluting his lifelong commitment to public service and his passionate defence of immigrant, vulnerable and working Canadians.
The 61-year-old leader of the federal opposition party succumbed to an aggressive, unnamed cancer early Monday morning, three months after New Democratic Party achieved unprecedented electoral success under his leadership.
"Jack's dream for Alberta was the same as his dream for Canadians right across the country — he wanted those who didn't have a voice to be represented," Edmonton-Strathcona NDP MP Linda Duncan said.
"They are seniors who are struggling to get by. They are immigrants who are trying to become Canadians and contribute to society. They are young Canadians who want affordable education, and young families who ... can't afford child care."
Duncan said Layton was a great leader who built a strong party across Canada and in Alberta, where support for the party is growing.
"We have high hopes for the next election," Duncan said. "Jack was the eternal optimist. He was undaunted. He was a remarkable human being."
She said she has confidence the party will stay strong, but added: "there will never be another Jack Layton."
Duncan said one of her fondest memories is of Layton singing Hit the Road Jack any time he got near a piano. Three years ago, she took Layton to the Fringe and Edmontonians who met him were "completely taken, because he was the genuine thing. I tried walking around with him, but we just gave up, people kept wanting to buy him a beer."
Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason said Layton's legacy will be "the triumph of hope over pessimism" and a credible alternative to the conservative vision for Canada
"The tragedy is that this man could have, and very likely would have, become the prime minister if this illness had not taken him away from us," Mason said. Layton's message to Canadians was simple, he said: "There is a real, clear alternative to the Conservative vision for Canada, and here it is. I think Canadians embraced that," he said.
Mason and Layton became friends 15 years ago when Mason was on Edmonton city council and Layton on Toronto's city council. Both were pressing for progressive reforms. Mason later served as Alberta chairman for Layton's leadership run. The two stayed in touch, even after Layton's announcement July 25 that he was temporarily stepping down to receive treatment for a newly diagnosed cancer.
"He has always been there for me," Mason said. "To the extent that I've improved as a leader of a party is because of his inspiration. That's his legacy for me, personally."
Asked about his fondest memories of Layton, Mason recalled three-day board meetings when Layton was running for the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
"He would gather people together in his hotel room and play the guitar and get everybody singing old folk songs from the '60s," Mason said. "He just got people involved, just with his personality, not politics."
Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Rachel Notley said Layton's leadership helped the party grow up and execute the "first-class campaign" that got MP Linda Duncan elected federally in Edmonton-Strathcona — the only Alberta NDP Member of Parliament.
Notley's father, Grant, was leader of Alberta's Official Opposition when he was killed in a plane crash in 1984. In the election that followed his party had a remarkable breakthrough, winning 16 seats with 29 per cent of the vote.
The same could happen after Layton's passing, Notley said.
"With my dad's death, there was a lot more commentary about the value and the merit of the work he did, and it was much more publicly discussed on a provincial level, so I think it raised the credibility of the party in the eyes of the public," Notley said.
"As well, I think his death inspired activists within the party to really focus on trying to make sure that the '86 election was a success."
Asked if something similar might happen as a result of Layton's passing, she said: "We're already seeing it. The way people talk about Jack has evolved over the last several months, but I think it's going to continue in a way that's very positive," she said.
"I don't think that can do anything but raise the credibility of the party federally and, by (extension), provincially."
Alberta Federation of Labour secretary Nancy Furlong said Layton's death is a tragic loss, but that his accomplishments in the last federal election earned new legitimacy for the New Democrats, which will improve the party's prospects in Alberta and across the country.
"The New Democrats are poised to actually influence the course of Canadian politics in a way that would be good for the average person," she said.
"That (voice) hasn't been heard in politics for a very long time: an honest representation of working people, the basic belief that society is there for the working person."
Premier Ed Stelmach said in a statement that "Jack was an enthusiastic and passionate politician who held strongly to his convictions during his long career in public life."
Alberta Liberal Opposition leader David Swann said Layton's death just months after becoming leader of the Official Opposition "seems unbearably cruel.
"Whatever his or her political affiliation, no Canadian can deny that Jack Layton lived to serve his country and his fellow citizens.".
Mayor Stephen Mandel called Layton's passing "a great loss," and noted Layton visited Edmonton many times and launched his 2011 federal election campaign here in March.
"Jack spoke for the common man so much," Mandel said. "He had such passion for their plight, and he also was a great character and a great supporter of cities as well."
Alberta Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith called Layton a principled leader and a great Canadian. "Canadians from coast to coast, myself included, were inspired by the courageous and energetic campaign he wagered last May," she said in a statement.
Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor also called Layton a "personal inspiration," partly because of "his unswerving commitment to the politics of hope and optimism rather than that of fear and anger.
"He showed us that optimism, creativity and imagination can and should exist in politics," Taylor said in a statement. "Thank you, sir."
Edmonton Journal, Tues Aug 23 2011
Byline: Karen Kleiss