3 min

A downtown take-over

Can Jack Layton lead the NDP?

Credit: Joshua Meles

With the NDP leader-ship convention coming up this weekend, Toronto city councillor Jack Layton is widely regarded to be in a two-way race with Winnipeg MP Bill Blaikie to replace current leader Alexa McDonough.

Blaikie holds a seat in the House Of Commons, Layton does not – his Achilles heal. But Layton’s campaign is gaining momentum and boasts among its many supporters some high-profile gay leaders.

“Jack Layton’s track record over more than two decades of public life in Toronto and nationally is outstanding,” wrote gay MP Svend Robinson in a gushing support letter. “[Through] his years of leadership on issues of equality for gays and lesbians and funding for HIV/AIDS, Jack has not just talked the talk, he has walked the walk.”

Both Robinson and his out caucus colleague Libby Davies have offered unreserved support to Layton’s leadership bid.

While some fear Layton’s high style disguise a platform that’s short on policy and punch, it’s clear that Layton has always worked for gay and lesbian rights.

His involvement goes back to the late ’70s when police were still routinely targeting homosexuals.

“I remember when the first bathhouse raids happened here in Toronto,” said Layton from the Toronto home he shares with his partner, city councillor Olivia Chow (who unsuccessfully tried to go federal in her Trinity-Spadina riding in 1997).

“I was very involved in the whole movement to protest it,” says Layton. “On the front of the protest line was a row of 12 police officers, who then started mixing it up and creating a disturbance, which then allowed them to start charging people. It was unbelievable. Not to mention the raids themselves, which were horrific. People I knew committed suicide as a result of that. It was horrifying.”

On current issues, Layton is a big supporter of a pharmacare federal drug program, calling it “a natural and important part of a fully functioning medicare system.”

He doesn’t believe that the age of consent should be raised to 16 from 14, a possibility Parliament is considering.

“I am not persuaded that a change in that age is something that is going to suddenly make our society a better place,” he says.

Asked about what he’d do to protect queer bookstores from being targeted by Canada Customs’ obscenity police, Layton’s a little more vague.

“Little Sister’s has for so many years been chased down and harassed, just like Glad Day here,” he says. When things like that happen, “the NDP needs to, and I think has, spoken out…. Secondly, we have to help the community to organize in dealing with police commissions. Now that is primarily a local matter more than a national matter, but we always need to keep an eye on the laws to make sure that they’re not being misused, and from time to time take a look at the legislations that govern these issues.”

And he says he will work hard on issues like same-sex marriages and supporting anti-hate crime legislation.

“Most people describe me as somebody who has high ideals and figures out how to get them implemented. I don’t believe in just advocating full pie in the sky, but on the other hand that doesn’t mean you can’t reach for the top,” he says.

Though his profile is highest in Toronto, Layton has support in other urban centres, too.

“In the gay and lesbian community in Vancouver he is the number one choice,” says Davies, who represents Vancouver East. “I think people see him as very gay positive and very gay friendly.

“For some politicians it’s a very token thing. They’ll go to a Pride parade but when the chips are down they’ll be against same-sex marriage, and they’ll be against this and that. That’s not Jack. He is an advocate for people’s rights, including gay and lesbian rights.”

Despite Layton’s record, he doesn’t have the queer vote entirely wrapped up. Long-time gay NDP activist Peter Waite strongly believes that the party needs representation in the House Of Commons, a nagging weakness in Layton’s campaign. If he won the leadership, it would take some time to have a by-election or wait for a general election that would send him to Parliament.

“The fight over Romanow [health report] and the fight over war in Iraq are going to happen in the House Of Commons. I don’t think we can afford to be waiting a year or two without a leader in the House Of Commons,” says Waite.

“The question for New Democrats is, ‘Who is the guy or gal who will be the most effective leader of the party today?’ I very much believe it’s Bill Blaikie,” says Waite. “He’s got a terrific record on gay rights. And he is referred to as the best orator in the House Of Commons.”

Layton believes he has a good chance of taking Dennis Mills’ coveted Toronto- Danforth seat in the federal next election. He’s unsuccessfully tried for a federal seat twice before, once against Mills.

Layton is also backed by current party leader Alexa McDonough, and former NDP top dogs Ed Broadbent and Audrey McLaughlin.

* The NDP leadership convention takes place in Toronto at Exhibition Place from Fri, Jan 24 to 26. For more on the convention, check out; you have to have already signed up through a riding association to be a delegate.