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NDP leader Layton helped New Westminster MPs thrive in Ottawa

Federal NDP leader Jack Layton passed away Monday. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER FILES
Federal NDP leader Jack Layton passed away Monday.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER FILES

Jack Layton, Canada’s Opposition leader, who died Monday, will be remembered for being an optimistic and encouraging leader who made time for all members of his caucus, according to Dawn Black, a former NDP MP for New Westminster.

“When I sat in the caucus and he asked me if I would act as the NDP critic for defence, I said, ‘Oh my God Jack, are you crazy?’ He told me that I was capable of doing it,” said Black. “He was a positive force, so full of energy. He believed in working together to bring change to Canadians.”

Black was first elected to parliament in 1988 and spent more than eight years representing New Westminster. In 2009, she moved to provincial politics and was elected as MLA.

New Westminster’s current representative in Ottawa, NDP MP Fin Donnelly, said Layton was a supportive leader who listened to his caucus.

“When I first went to Ottawa, Jack said to me, ‘Here’s my number and Fin I expect you to use it. If you have any questions call me,’” said Donnelly. He added that when he presented Layton with some ideas for environmental policies, Layton not only listened to him but set up time with senior staff to discuss the ideas. That was impressive to a rookie MP like Donnelly, he said.

To support local members of the federal NDP, Layton attended two fundraisers at the Jim McNeney house in Queen’s Park in October 2005 and November 2006. At that heritage house, he had his picture taken in the same spot where Winston Churchill had been photographed decades before, according to Black.

He also paid a visit to Burger Heaven, a favorite New Westminster hangout, in April 2010.

Last spring, the restaurant held their famous burger poll during the federal election campaign last April. Jack Layton won that poll, according to Burger Heaven manager Stephen Domaas.

A month later, the NDP won an unprecedented 103 seats in parliament and became the official opposition to Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

Layton’s optimism was present in both his political and personal life, according to Black, who said when Layton resigned last month he fully intended to return to parliament in the fall.

“Jack believed that he could beat this. He believed that he could fight it off. Within the last little while, of course, he realized that it might be the end,” Black said, adding that in a letter to Canadians released on the day of his death Layton spoke to and inspired all Canadian families dealing with cancer—including hers.

“I’ve had two children who have gone through cancer and I haven’t been able to read that whole letter because I start to cry,” Black said.

Family was a topic that Black and Layton bonded over.

“When his granddaughter Beatrice was born a few years ago, he had a glint in his eye when he said to me he understood why I wanted to step down from federal politics and move to provincial politics so I could be closer to my family,” said Black, who has seven grandchildren.

As to the future of the NDP, Black believes that despite the great loss the party will not lose the momentum it gained in the last federal election.

“There’s only one Jack Layton. The ideas that he put forth were the ideas of social democracy. They are the NDP’s values and they’ll carry on.”

Donnelly said Layton’s legacy will not soon be forgotten by his party.

“Without Jack the party has definitely suffered a huge loss, but as a leader he’s built a solid foundation for the party,” said Donnelly.

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