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.
Analysts attribute the NDP wave in Quebec — the orange tide, they call it, referring to the party's colors — almost entirely to Layton's personal popularity. People who would never have considered giving the party a second's thought found Layton to be "un bon Jack" as the expression goes and rewarded his pluck and pretty decent street French with an avalanche of votes, electing a crop of new MPs, some of whom had had only a passing acquaintance with the ridings they now represent.
One example is Ruth Ellen Brosseau, a university pub manager in Ottawa, single mother, unpolished French speaker and casual supporter of the NDP. She agreed to be a candidate in a rural, completely francophone riding, got swept up in the orange tide and found herself the MP for a place she has never visited. Brosseau and nearly 60 more newbies from Quebec rode Layton's ample coat-tails to Ottawa.
Cancer, of course, can be beaten, and there are plenty of examples to inspire Layton in what is literally the fight of his life. Yet, given his shrunken physical state, even the most optimistic observer would agree it's doubtful Layton will be back in his seat when Parliament reconvenes in mid-September.
Worse, the NDP caucus members, whom but weeks before were giddy with the excitement of their surprise triumph, need to come to terms with the fact that Layton may be out of the picture indefinitely. And that may mean a struggle for control of the party that Jack built into a contender.
So the fate of the party and in the longer term, the direction of the nation, rests with the talents of Jack Layton's doctors, or with his faith, if you prefer. This blow to a man who won the admiration of fans and foes alike for his optimism and courage, is being felt deeply within a country that had just embraced Layton as a beacon of hope and determination.
Canadians surely are hoping that Jack can pull off another huge victory against a tenacious and cruel foe.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.