COLUMN: Jack Layton - An exceptional leader lost

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Jack Layton is being remembered as the NDP leader who brought the party out of the wilderness to Official Opposition status in Ottawa.

Some of that crucial work took place in Surrey. Layton was a frequent visitor here – not only during election campaigns, but throughout the years. He recruited candidates here, and he got to know many of the issues the city grapples with.

When Layton became federal NDP leader in 2003, Surrey had not had a sitting NDP MP for 10 years. Surrey had no NDP MLAs, and the NDP presence on city council and school board was minimal.

This was an aberration. Surrey voters have long preferred the NDP (and its predecessor, the CCF). Way back in 1937, just a few years after the formation of the CCF, Len Shepherd was elected as CCF MLA for the Delta riding, which included Surrey.

Numerous CCF sympathizers were elected to Surrey council and school board, and when the NDP was formed in 1961, Surrey voters were among the first to elect an NDP MP. Barry Mather won the New Westminster seat (which included Surrey) in 1962.

On the provincial front, the CCF had re-taken the Delta seat (by then it was a two-member seat) in 1960, lost the seats in 1963, and Ernest Hall was elected in the new Surrey seat in 1966. He later went on to serve in the cabinet of Dave Barrett, B.C.’s first NDP premier.

In more recent years, Surrey elected three NDP MLAs in 1991, with all three, Joan Smallwood, Penny Priddy and Sue Hammell, serving in cabinet at various times. Jim Karpoff was elected as the first Surrey-North MP in 1988.

But in 2003, the NDP was at a low ebb. Its civic arm, the Surrey Civic Electors, had fallen apart. The NDP was all but wiped out in the 2001 provincial election, with the Liberals winning all seven Surrey seats. Federally, the party had just 13 seats across Canada, with only two of them in B.C.

Layton became leader of the NDP after serving as a Toronto city councillor and president of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities. While he had some challenges when he first took on the post, he soon demonstrated an ability to moderate and lead an often-fractious political party. He personally recruited former MLA Penny Priddy to run for the Surrey-North seat in the 2006 federal election – a seat the NDP won.

Meanwhile, the provincial NDP was finding its feet. While Layton played less of a role in that, his high profile helped put the NDP back on the radar screen.

Priddy’s decision not to run again in 2008 was a temporary setback for the federal NDP in Surrey, but Layton kept looking for good candidates. In the May election, two of his recruits, Jasbir Sandhu in Surrey-North and Ginny Sims in Newton-North Delta, won their seats. This gives the NDP the strongest federal representation it has ever had from Surrey.

Layton was in Surrey numerous times before and during the campaign. He was on a first-name basis with many local NDP members. Most importantly, his ability to articulate a vision for his party attracted many young people to work on the campaigns.

He empowered people who weren’t all that political and made them feel they can effect positive change.

The NDP will have a tough time finding a leader to fill his shoes. Layton’s hard work in building the party across Canada, and in Surrey, was exceptional.


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