Jack Layton, 61, popular head of Canada’s opposition party

Associated Press / August 23, 2011

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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 yesterday of cancer. He was 61.

Mr. 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 Mr. Layton died peacefully at his Toronto home, surrounded by family and loved ones. Only weeks ago, a gaunt Mr. Layton held a press conference to announce he was fighting a second bout of cancer.

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

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

His 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 Canadiens jersey and pouring a beer during the hockey playoffs went viral in Quebec.

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

Harper said he was deeply saddened by Mr. 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,’’ Harper said in a statement. “This, sadly, will no longer come to pass.’’

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.

Mr. 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 yesterday as a regular guy who made friends easily. On the quiet Toronto side street where Mr. 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 and the private sides of Mr. Layton were one and the same: a naturally upbeat person that everyone liked, even if they disagreed with his political views.

Mr. Layton wrote a letter to Canadians this past Saturday that was released by his wife, Olivia Chow, after his death.

He called for a Canada that shares its benefits more fairly and asked Canadians to give his party a chance in the years to come.

Mr. Layton’s wife is a former Toronto city councilor and now the New Democrat Parliament member for a downtown Toronto district. He leaves two children, Sarah and Mike, from a previous marriage. Mike is a Toronto city councilor.