Jack Layton's uphill battle

Amid questions about his political and physical health, Layton faces doubt and disbelief on the campaign trail

A Mountain too high?

Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

The plane emblazoned with his name is taxiing down a runway in Halifax and Jack Layton is talking about sheep. Specifically, he is talking about Dall sheep: a species adept at mountain climbing and often seen perched on high, steep cliffs. He saw some during a trip to Nahani National Park some years ago. And the NDP, he figures, is like the Dall sheep, forever running uphill. “If you put us on a flat surface, we’d fall over,” he laughs. “We’d be in a completely foreign environment.”

Once again, Layton is leading the NDP into a general election—his fourth since winning the party leadership in 2003. And once again, he is faced with doubt and disbelief on the campaign trail. First there were questions about his physical ability in the wake of prostate cancer and hip surgery. Now, with his party still hovering around 17 per cent in the polls and his campaign perceived to be lacking verve, he is pressed about his political viability. Every day, after he had promised some “practical” solution and vowed to work together to “fix” Ottawa, he invited questions from the reporters travelling with his campaign. And every day they found some new way to suggest he was failing or flailing, perhaps outright doomed. “I don’t know what they’re feeding them back there,” he jokes of those seated in the plane’s rear. “I’ve got to have a talk with the chef.”

Up front, Layton remains as undaunted as ever. Each day, he gets up and says the words that demand seriousness and invite ridicule: “As your prime minister, I will…”And shortly after this flight reaches cruising altitude, he will unpack his guitar and head to the back of the Airbus 319 where his tormentors are recovering from their lobster dinner. Songbooks will be handed out and Layton will proceed to lead one of his traditional campaign singalongs, opening with a rousing rendition of Stan Rogers’ classic sea shanty, Barrett’s Privateers.

Two days earlier, in Montreal, the reporters wondered aloud about the state of his campaign and his prospects for success in the province. “Well, of course, some people adopt a defeatist attitude and say that things cannot be done,” Layton said at one point. “As you well know, we don’t hold that view.” Layton is a master of the mid-answer pivot. Ask him about his long odds of winning a given riding and he’ll tell you about the need to eliminate oil subsidies. But the doubts—Does the campaign lack energy? Is it moving fast enough? Is it drawing enough people?—followed him to Sudbury, Ont., and from there to Dartmouth, N.S. The bingo hall of the Dartmouth Sportsplex was three-quarters full with 400 people who cheered his remarks, but afterward one reporter suggested this crowd was not of sufficient size. Layton would not abide. “Oh, come on,” he scoffed. “Pardon me for disagreeing with you, but here we are on a Saturday morning, folks have lots to do, and yet we filled a good-sized room here with very enthusiastic people.” This was the first time Layton had shown such frustration. And this, of course, only encouraged the speculation: “NDP’s Layton fends off questions about modest crowds” and “Layton deflects questions about spare crowds” read the headlines that followed.

By week’s end, the NDP felt compelled to release a tally showing Layton made it to nearly as many events and saw more people in the first seven days of this race than during the first seven days of the 2008 campaign. To complaints that many of their campaign promises were similar to previous commitments, the New Democrats countered that the policies hadn’t been adopted by a government and remain relevant. But the media machine demands something new and dramatic, and in the campaign’s first week the drama was elsewhere—with Stephen Harper’s campaign of fear and Michael Ignatieff’s surprising debut on the hustings.

So it goes that the NDP is once again asked to prove why it should be regarded as anything more than the third national party. But here is Layton on his fourth attempt, still seeming far from the breakthrough that would redeem his rhetoric. For months, his physical appearance—Does he look pale? Has he lost weight?—has been the subject of speculation, and here he is hobbling around on a forearm crutch. And for the first time since Layton became leader, there is a potential successor: Thomas Mulclair, the prominent former provincial cabinet minister from Montreal, whose by-election victory in Outremont in 2007 was hailed as a major breakthrough for the NDP in Quebec.

Layton is 60 years old. He has been running for or holding office for most of the last 30 years. His mortality has recently been made obvious. But he says he does not think about the end of his career. He loves the opportunity to enact change that public office affords. He loves the road. “There isn’t anything about campaigning I don’t enjoy,” Layton says. He compares building the NDP to building a house. He figures the foundation has been poured and now they’re putting the superstructure together.

Aboard his campaign plane, he sits on a square pillow and props his left foot on a small black ottoman. A few days earlier his doctor gave him the okay to begin cardio exercises again. Layton says it felt good to get the endorphins pumping again. He ?gures he’ll be cleared to use a simpler cane soon enough. He admits cancer has changed his outlook, but so did the birth of his first granddaughter, Beatrice. He recalls a slogan of Tommy Douglas’s that is inscribed on a painting that hangs in his Centre Block office: “Courage, my friends; ’tis not too late to build a better world.”

“Both my granddaughter and illness just drive you toward that sentiment,” he says. “You become a little more sanguine about some of the day-to-day things and just really focus on how can we make this world a better place. It sounds corny, but it’s not corny at all.”

He is indeed sanguine about his daily meeting with the skeptics, perhaps even eager for the test. And so here, recalling his days as a competitive swimmer, he finds another analogy—another way of saying he will not be dissuaded. “It’s like going into a tough race. It’s more enjoyable than going into one where you’re just going to cruise to success. The most exciting ones are the ones that are tough,” says Layton. “Like I say, we’re used to running uphill—not to mix up all my metaphors here.”

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