July 29, 2011

Canadian leader fighting cancer

Not too many people saw this coming. Parliamentary reporters, though, were beginning to ask where Jack Layton had vanished in the depths of summer.

This week Canadians found out, in a shocking way, what had become of the leader of the New Democratic Party and, as of last May's federal election, the leader of Canada's official Opposition. Layton convened a press conference to announce he was taking a leave from politics to battle cancer.

Although some observers in retrospect had noted a change in his appearance a few weeks ago, the Jack Layton who met the media Monday — drawn, much older-looking, with a thin and quavering voice — left Canadians stunned by this sudden decline.

Layton announced that medical tests conducted last week — when he turned 61 — revealed he is afflicted by a "new cancer," which is taken to mean an occurrence that is not directly connected to the prostate cancer he had battled for 18 months, and seemingly beat, earlier this year.

He had recovered well enough to fight a vigorous election campaign — albeit using a cane due to hip surgery — that resulted in what is accepted as one of the most resounding personal triumphs ever in Canadian politics.

Layton brought the perennial third party, a moderate socialist coalition of unionists, activists, farmers, idealistic youth and urban reformers, from a rump that only once won more than 40 seats to a 103-member strong Opposition. In so doing, the NDP replaced the venerable Liberal Party of Canada as the would-be alternative to the governing Conservatives.

Layton, who was raised in a Montreal-area suburb and is the scion of a family with deep political roots in Quebec, scored huge in the French-speaking province, winning 59 seats from a starting point of one. This historic breakthrough all but wiped out the once-mighty separatist Bloc Quebecois from the federal Parliament and sparked talk of a new openness to Canada among Quebec nationalists.

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Peter Black: Canadian Dispatch
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