It is an unexpected twist in what was already one of the greatest political stories in Canadian history.

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Opinion

It is an unexpected twist in what was already one of the greatest political stories in Canadian history.

NDP Leader Jack Layton's announcement Monday that he is stepping aside temporarily to resume his fight with cancer is, obviously, a tragic turn of events. Just a few months ago, Layton led his party to its greatest federal electoral result. The 103 seats made Layton, leader of the NDP since 2003, the leader of the official Opposition. This result gave hope to New Democrats across the country that the days of the party's perennial also-ran performance were finally over.

Jack Layton on May 11 at the Canadian Labour Congress convention in Vancouver.

WARD PERRIN / PNG ARCHIVES

Jack Layton on May 11 at the Canadian Labour Congress convention in Vancouver.

Layton, appearing gaunt and sounding frail, insisted his departure was only temporary, and promised to be back at the helm Sept. 19, when Parliament resumes sitting. Watching him live on television delivering the bad news, it was hard to imagine him keeping that promise.

Then again, this is a man who just this spring endured the rigours of a federal election campaign -- a physical and emotional challenge that has been known to humble much younger men than Layton -- much to the surprise of his physicians. Using a cane to support a recently repaired hip, Layton appeared incredibly robust. He matched the other party leaders day for day, event for event. Not once during the campaign did he take a day off to rest.

Notwithstanding that performance, Layton's announcement Monday proves once again, as if we needed more proof, that cancer is the cruellest of all maladies. Just two months before he was to realize a dream by rising in the House of Commons to ask Prime Minister Stephen Harper the first question in question period, a privilege reserved for the leader of the official Opposition, he is now fighting for his life.

Although it is a cynical game to assess the political impact of a personal tragedy, there should be no doubt that this will at some point affect events on the federal political stage. The first and most obvious change will come at the helm of the NDP.

For the next two months, it appears rookie Quebec MP Nycole Turmel will serve as interim leader. Bilingual and battle-tested when she served as head of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Turmel was a surprise choice. The move is widely viewed as Layton, realizing his return may be in doubt, choosing an interim leader who is not a leading candidate to replace him. Political tradition suggests it is unfair to give any legitimate successor the additional media attention and profile afforded to interim leaders. Turmel's appointment cannot be viewed as anything but confirmation that the outcome of Layton's battle with cancer is very much in doubt.

What does Layton's departure do to the momentum of his party? Yes, Layton was a key factor in the spring electoral success; how can any party do what the NDP did without a dynamic performance from a leader? However, the Orange Crush was really concentrated in Quebec. As remarkable as that performance was, it remains to be seen whether it translates into a base of support that can be counted on in the next federal election.

The biggest concern now for the NDP is at a time when it is breaking in dozens of new and inexperienced MPs, there is a leadership vacuum. There are other NDP MPs with leadership potential and aspirations, but none who have the experience needed. Layton has that experience but for the time being, he will take the fight for his life behind closed doors. If there is any positive byproduct of this sad revelation, it is that Canadians will be exposed to many more NDP MPs as the entire caucus pulls together to fill the void created by Layton's departure.

If there was any doubt Layton had the mettle of a political leader, it evaporated at Monday's news conference. Real leaders are the men and women who find optimism, resolve and action when confronted by daunting challenges. They find reasons to fight on even as those around them begin to lose faith. Layton showed Monday that he is that kind of leader.

Notwithstanding his triumph in May, there will be some Canadians who would deny Layton a place alongside Canada's greatest political leaders. Monday's stoic admission and steady pledge to fight on has confirmed May was no fluke, and Layton is a leader in all definitions of the word.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.