The universal outpouring of affection and concern this week for Jack Layton has astonished everyone. It’s unimaginable that another Canadian politician would evoke such a reaction under any circumstance.

This phenomenon is surely gratifying to Jack — as even CBC hosts call him on air — and his wife Olivia and to all of us who have wondered why it took the world so long to recognize that we had a mensch among us. Now that he’s respected, admired and genuinely liked even by those 28 newspaper editorial boards that rejected him in the last election, it’s a good time to recall that Mr. Layton hasn’t changed that much over the years. He just finally got appreciated.

Let me share two early personal experiences. In 1991, as a high-profile Toronto municipal councillor, Mr. Layton decided to run for mayor; I was co-chair of his campaign. He had an immense store of understanding about the complexities of urban life which he translated into exciting and creative ideas for the city. A pre-campaign survey showed Mr. Layton with about a third of public support, a credible base from which to build. After a pretty good campaign and a great deal of attention, we ended up with about a third of the vote. Panicky conservatives and business interests united behind an unpleasant June Rowlands, and Mr. Layton was creamed two to one. Mayor Rowlands ended up being the mediocrity she was expected to be.

During the long campaign, something strange happened. I found myself liking and appreciating my candidate more all the time. I assure you, from long experience, this is not a guaranteed result. But no candidate could have been better to work with — principled, interested only in policy, never inclined to attack his opponent personally (an approach not at all reciprocated), and never a prima donna about being The Candidate.

Mr. Layton also reacted to the severe thumping with easy grace and resilience and was soon up to his neck in the many other good causes he felt strongly about. I’m guessing hardly anyone recalls that one of Mr. Layton’s most passionate issues began at that time. In 1989, a deranged woman-hater had murdered 14 women in Montréal, the infamous École Polytechnique massacre.

Slowly it dawned on some of us thick-headed men that ending men’s violence against women was not just a women’s job. Around the time of the mayoralty race two years later, a few of us devised the White Ribbon Campaign to stop violence against women. Mr. Layton was one of the pioneers, attending the meetings, participating actively, not at all acting the important public person the rest of us thought him to be. Mr. Latyon made the White Ribbon campaign one of his personal crusades, and along with Michael Kaufman and others turned it into a worldwide movement.

It should be acknowledged that not everyone has always cherished Mr. Layton through his long years in public life, and — believe it or not — even today there are doubters. I don’t mean the sudden media mini-frenzy to know all the details of his cancer. I mean something much more sinister.

At the very same time “Jack” was being discovered in the last couple of weeks of the 2011 campaign, the Sun media chain, both newspapers and obscure TV network, thought it was worth dredging up and trumpeting a 15-year-old tale about a massage parlour. So bizarre was the smear that it probably increased Mr. Layton’s popularity.

But what began with the Sun didn’t stay with the Sun, as newspaper columnist Christie Blatchford, then with the Globe, decided the story was worth sharing more widely. In a long article she agreed that Mr. Layton was being smeared, but she insisted a smear could be true. As far as Ms. Blatchford was concerned, what the story said “about one of the most trusted political figures in the country is consistent with a thread of hypocrisy which has run through his political life.”

This was a significant development, even though it seemed merely twisted at the time. What the Sun-Blatchford attacks really signalled was that if the NDP was indeed becoming a serious political challenger, the enemies of progressive politics were going to pull out all the stops to discredit it. In the 1990s this business-rightist alliance had taken all steps necessary to guarantee the defeat of the Ontario NDP government. So now they would do whatever was needed to make sure the NDP never had the remotest chance of winning power in Ottawa, and I haven’t the slightest doubt the planning began election night.

I have some insider advice for these folks: don’t stop your preparations now. Be smart. Ignore those who say the NDP is nothing without Mr. Layton. Remember that all those Quebecois didn’t vote for him just because they thought his moustache was chic or because he wore a Habs sweater; even if they didn’t know much about the specific NDP program, they knew their bon Jack was a progressive, a social democrat, that he was on their side. They may not have known their NDP candidates in May, but you can be sure they’ll know their NDP MP before the next election. They’ll know the party stands for what Mr. Layton stands for, whoever leads it.

Right-wingers of the world, be very afraid: The NDP threat did not end this week.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...