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Canadian opposition leader Layton, 61, dies

In this Sept. 28, 2008 photo, federal NDP Leader Jack Layton waves to supporters at the end of his speech, in Toronto. Layton died Monday, Aug. 22, 2011, after a battle with cancer. (Jacques Boissinot / The Canadian Press)
In this Sept. 28, 2008 photo, federal NDP Leader Jack Layton waves to supporters at the end of his speech, in Toronto. Layton died Monday, Aug. 22, 2011, after a battle with cancer. (Jacques Boissinot / The Canadian Press)

TORONTO — Jack Layton, a folksy and charismatic political leader who guided his party to become the dominant opposition group in Canada’s Parliament while battling severe health problems, died Monday of cancer. He was 61.

Layton hobbled through the campaign earlier this year as he recovered from a broken hip and prostate cancer. Under his upbeat leadership the leftist New Democrats outpolled the Liberals and became the official opposition party for the first time in their 50-year history.

The New Democrat party issued a statement saying Layton died peacefully Monday morning at his Toronto home, surrounded by family and loved ones. Only weeks ago, a gaunt Layton shocked Canadians when he held a news conference to announce he was fighting a second bout of cancer.

The spring campaign started out looking like a straight battle between Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Liberals’ Michael Ignatieff, with Layton recovering from prostate cancer and a broken hip.

But Layton’s party scored its historic win by garnering 103 seats in the May federal election, up from a previous 37.

Layton’s cheerful message, his strong performance in the debates, and his popularity in the French-speaking province of Quebec went over well with voters. He once was voted the politician Canadians would most want to have a beer with.

He was a native of Montreal, and a photo of him wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey and pouring a beer during the hockey playoffs went viral in Quebec.

But Harper’s Conservative government won a coveted majority government in part because the left-center vote in Canada split between the Liberals and New Democrats.

Harper said he was deeply saddened by Layton’s death.

“When I last spoke with Jack following his announcement in July, I wished him well and he told me he’d be seeing me in the House of Commons in the fall. This, sadly, will no longer come to pass,” Harper said in a statement.

Harper later spoke to the nation in a televised address from Parliament.

“Jack Layton will be remembered for the force of his personality and dedication to public life,” Harper said. “We have all lost an engaging personality and a man with strong principles.”

Harper, who sometimes plays the piano and sings, said he regretted not getting a chance to “jam” with Layton, who played the guitar, piano, harmonica and accordion.

Canadians left flowers and cards at the eternal flame on Parliament Hill, where the flag on the peace tower was lowered to half-staff. Anne McGrath, Layton’s chief of staff, said the government will hold a state funeral for Layton in Toronto on Saturday.

Layton announced in February 2010 that he had been battling prostate cancer but he continued a crowded schedule while getting treatment.

He lost a considerable amount of weight and his voice was very weak when he said last month that his battle with prostate cancer was going well but that recent tests showed he had a new form of cancer. He not did elaborate on what type of cancer was discovered.

He was remembered Monday as a regular guy who made friends easily.

On the quiet Toronto side street where Layton lived, friends and neighbors stopped by, some bearing flowers.

“He was someone you could have a beer with,” said Ted Hawkins, who laid a single red rose on the doorstep. “He was a very down-to-earth person.”

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said the public Layton and the private Layton were one and the same — a naturally upbeat person that everyone liked even if they disagreed with his political views.

In a touching letter written Saturday and released hours after his death, Layton called for a Canada that shares its benefits more fairly and asked Canadians to give his party a chance in the years to come.

He also urged cancer patients not to lose hope as treatments and therapies have never been better. “You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future,” he wrote.

His advice to the nation reflected the philosophy that governed his life.

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world,” he wrote.

As for young Canadians, he said, “I believe in you.”

Layton came from a political family. He was the son of a former federal Progressive Conservative cabinet minister and the grandson of a prominent provincial politician in Quebec. He had said that although his father was a conservative, he truly cared about those less well off.

Layton was a career politician, a former longtime city councilor known to work tirelessly on behalf of the poor and homeless. He was also an early advocate for HIV and AIDS patients. He ran for mayor in Toronto and lost in 1991 after being criticized for living in subsidized housing and for opposing Toronto’s ultimately failed bid for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

New Democrat lawmaker Libby Davies, her voice breaking, said Canadians came to love Layton “as someone who deeply, deeply cared for people.”

McGrath, his chief of staff, said Layton had an easy rapport with the common citizen.

“You could not walk a block with that guy and get anywhere on time because everyone wanted to talk to him,” McGrath said. “I remember people coming up to him and telling him deeply personal stories, in an elevator or in a coffee shop lineup or a restaurant. People felt that they could talk to him.”

Stephen Lewis, the former U.N. special envoy trying to help combat AIDS in Africa, said Layton often lobbied him to run for the New Democrats, but told him after speech that he was doing the right thing by continuing in his role as U.N. envoy.

“It set aside all my anxieties about whether I was doing the right thing in life,” Lewis said. “It was reassuring and I think he did that for people all the time. He reassured them and gave them a sense of their strength about what they were doing.”

Layton’s wife, Olivia Chow, is a former Toronto city councilor and now the New Democrat Parliament member for a downtown Toronto district.

He has two children, Sarah and Mike, from a previous marriage. Mike Layton is now a Toronto city councilor.

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