Canada: Death of NDP leader, Jack Layton

Funeral reveals deep-rooted mood of working people and youth for real change

Just a few months after the New Democratic Party (NDP) reached an historical high by gaining 102 seats in the Federal elections, and for the first time becoming the official opposition, the NDP leader, Jack Layton, passed away from cancer. Layton was seen by many people as being a genuine and honest politician who was prepared to fight on social issues, including homelessness, gay rights, the environment and poverty.

But aside from many people’s genuine feelings of sadness surrounding Layton’s death, what has been highlighted since his passing is the deep rooted feeling for a need for change which exists among many people in Canada. In the midst of general opposition to the governing neo-liberal agenda of the Conservatives, a mood of wanting something better was encapsulated in a letter Layton wrote from his death bed, in which he individually addressed his party, his parliamentary caucus, Quebecers, young people and Canadians, in general. He made an appeal to young people. He stated that as his “time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today.”

At Jack Layton’s funeral, former Ontario NDP leader, Stephen Lewis, described the letter as “at its heart a manifesto for social democracy.”

Many of the expression in Layton’s letter, which was similar to those during the NDP’s federal election campaign, spoke about the need to address injustice and inequality in society. During the election campaign, Layton called for an increase in corporation tax, to help raise money for pensioners and for the training of new doctors. Whether or not these measures would have been implemented if the NDP had gained power, the demands and slogans, such as “no one will be left behind”, resonated with voters. With the current economic uncertainty in Canada, many of Layton’s slogans were seen to be in direct contrast to the one tone message given by the Conservatives and Liberals – which workers need to “tighten their belts” and brace themselves for a possible recession.

The spring 2011 federal election gave the Conservatives another term in power. However, led by Stephen Harper, the Conservatives received less than 40% of the vote on election day but yet ended up with a majority government. The result was regarded by many as a blow to those who wanted to see a change in government.

Unfair election results

Therefore, the death of Jack Layton has partly brought to the surface the frustration over what many people felt what were unfair election results, as well as opposition to the right wing policies of the Conservatives. Canada’s recent involvement in foreign military conflicts, such as Afghanistan, a drive towards privatisations and cuts to public services, including the arts, is seen by many as a shift in the wrong direction which only benefits big business and the rich.

In the post WW2 decades, workers won many social gains in Canada. As a result of this, each generation was promised that the next generation would have an even better quality of life. However these gains being eroded. With the increase in house prices, higher education costs and of the elderly living in poverty, many people ask that on the basis of the current neo-liberal policies, how much worse can the conditions of working people become?

Layton’s death has also intensified the debate about what political direction the NDP will take ahead of a new leadership convention in early 2012. In 1961, the federal NDP was founded through an amalgamation of the CLC (Canadian Labour Congress) and the CCF (Co-Operative Commonwealth Foundation), as an alliance between the unions and the Left in Canada. The NDP’s first leader was Tommy Douglas, who is attributed as the ‘father’ of universal healthcare and was voted the greatest Canadian of all time in 2004. The NDP’s link with the unions is still strong and accounts for 25% of the vote in their conventions, including the leadership vote. At the NDP’s recent 50th convention, the majority of the leadership were voted down over a number of proposed “modernizing” changes to the NDP’s programme, including omitting the term “socialism.” It is clear that among the leadership and sections of the rank and file of the NDP, there is a clear aim to move away from being in any way associated with being “socialist.” There is a political void which exists on the Left and there is also a void which exists due to the big electoral defeat of the “centre-ground” Liberals. Many in the NDP wrongly believe a further move to the right would allow the party to be more ‘acceptable’ and, in turn, more likely to build on their electoral gains in the next federal election.

Led by Jack Layton since 2003, the NDP are at a political crossroads. They have never had so many MPs, nor have they ever been in official opposition before. However, although many in the NDP leadership may worry that a move to the Left will alienate them from their future political aspirations of holding power, the truth is that a move to the right will likely repel many of the young people and workers who recently voted for the NDP as a vote for “change” against the Conservative neo-liberal agenda.

Jack Layton’s final words and appeals to youth and all Canadians to make changes for the better struck a chord with many people. An indication of this was expressed by the tens of thousands of people who viewed Layton while lying in state, as well as those who attended and watched the state funeral. While we live in the 21st century surrounded by amazing technology, tremendous wealth and possibilities for people and the planet, billions are needlessly living in poverty and in constant economic uncertainty. When even one person is seen to be giving an alternative, however limited, to this misery, such as Layton, they can win the ear of many thousands of workers and young people who are looking for a real alternative. Although some of the messages given through Layton’s final letter and funeral can be taken as ambiguous, they have however caught the attention of a layer of workers and youth who may have been given some confidence towards getting involved in fighting for change.


This mood has not gone unnoticed by the media, who after Jack Layton’s funeral were desperately trying to undermine any determination people may have felt towards getting involved in campaigns or a wider movement. A National Post article on 27 August, entitled “NDP offers Canada’s alternative to reality”, argued that the NDP’s ideals, which them newspaper described as “democratic socialism,” are a “fantasy.”

Sections of the media also understood the useful ‘moderate’ role, to the benefit of the ruling class, played by the NDP under Layton, both domestically and abroad. During the federal elections, the NDP were regarded by many as a ‘leftist’ alternative to the Liberals but on key issues – support for NATO attacks on Libya, environmental issues, the economy and the national question in Quebec – there was little difference between them. On some issues, such as ‘law and order’, the NDP ran to the right of the Liberals, promising to increase police numbers. In power in several Canadian provinces, the NDP has followed pro-market policies, attacking social gains of the working class, passing ‘back-to-work’ legislation and even violating collective bargaining agreements with public-sector workers to carry out budget cuts.

What is desperately needed in Canada is a mass workers’ party, which is based unfalteringly on the best ideas and traditions of socialism; one that can be democratically built by and for workers, young people, unions and activists, and that can organize to help bring about the necessary fundamental change in how society is organized – for the needs of the majority, not just the few. While socialists would welcome a fundamental move to the left by the NDP, it lacks the above mentioned political and organizational necessities for it to be a vehicle for a decisive change in society. In fact, the NDP has moved to the right over the last decades, embracing the market economy and pro-capitalist policies. The NDP leadership tries to express some of the social anger building up within Canadian society while, at the same time, it is at pains to re-assure the ruling class that they will be a ‘responsible’ government should they come to power in the next period.

However, there are small, initial formations in parts of Canada, such as the Socialist Party of Ontario, which could help develop the building blocks for the development of a new party. Canada has a very proud and strong history of workers and community struggles. It is this history on which socialists need to re-commit themselves to and for the building of a mass socialist force that will fight for a socialist world.

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September 2011