Tall Poppy Interview: Jack Layton
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Tall Poppy Interview: Jack Layton

Jack Layton
Photo by Jenna Marie Wakani from the NDP’s Flickr photostream.
If ever there was a fixture in the Toronto political scene, Jack Layton is it. A city councillor for the better part of two decades and a former head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, he is an expert on housing and homelessness and among the most influential left-of-centre figures to come out of Ontario in the past quarter-century. He has been at the helm of the federal New Democratic Party since 2003, member of Parliament for Toronto—Danforth since 2004, and in October 2008 led the NDP to the second-highest share of House of Commons seats in its history.
Now, a month later, the man with the famous moustache is once again positioning his party as the “real opposition” in the upcoming Parliament. And although the NDP still sits fourth in terms of seats in the House, the continued minority situation and seven additional New Democratic MPs could give Layton the power to once again push his agenda to the fore.
With the new legislative session about to begin, Torontoist spoke with Layton earlier this week about his political roots, the changing face of Toronto, why Canada is not truly a modern democracy, and the NDP’s plan to bring the country out of the economic doldrums and back onto its feet.

Torontoist: Your family has been deeply involved in Canadian politics since Confederation. When did you first decide that you wanted to follow in the footsteps of your forefathers and become a politician?
Jack Layton: [Laughs]. Interesting way to put the question, because I would say I never really made the decision to get involved in politics for reasons of genealogy. Although, in fact, the guy who most inspired me was my great-grandfather, who was a blind man and an activist for fairer treatment for blind people, and he actually never was elected to anything, which is kind of interesting.
But it was really being involved in the community in Toronto at the level of downtown environmental issues—housing issues especially—in the early seventies and through the seventies, organizing with tenants and working for fair rents and for community facilities for low-income people in the downtown, low-income neighbourhoods, and that kind of thing. Opposing the Spadina Expressway, favouring public transit, all that kind of stuff, led me to work on various campaigns, people running for local council, and before you know it, I was being encouraged and had got the bug to run for local council. That’s really how it happened. I ended up getting elected before my father. He was elected a few years later than me, as an MP.
Jack Layton and Ed Broadbent.
Jack Layton and former NDP leader Ed Broadbent. Photo by Jenna Marie Wakani from the NDP’s Flickr photostream.
It’s interesting that it’s your great-grandfather who you take inspiration from, while your grandfather, who was a minister in the Duplessis government in Quebec, and your father, a minister in the Mulroney government, had very different politics from you. What exactly was it that drew you to the progressive side and to the NDP specifically?
Well, it was the message of Tommy Douglas, really. I mean, the values that went through our family—something picked up from my father, even though he fell in with a bad crowd… [Laughs]. You know, what can you do when that happens with a family member? But he always said, “Don’t miss the opportunity to serve.” So that was certainly how I always saw elected office, as an opportunity to serve the community, and ultimately, now, the country.
But it was the values represented by Tommy Douglas—who was the leader of the New Democrats when I was coming out of high school and going to university in Montreal and beginning to be exposed to the ideas of the broader world, as it were—and his views on everything from the War Measures Act to medicare to social housing and the need for housing. There was a young guy who had just been recently elected to the House of Commons named Ed Broadbent who came out with a housing policy saying we should build affordable housing in the form of co-ops and non-profits and that kind of thing—very vocally community-based. And that was adopted in the minority government between the Liberals and Trudeau, and by then it was David Lewis who was leading the NDP. So all these things drove me to the NDP as a party that represented my values.
You talk about housing, and that seems to be one of the issues that early on defined your career. What is the state of housing in Canada right now and in Toronto specifically?
Well, I just released a completely re-written version of my book on homelessness [Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis], which of course focuses on the solutions and the need for a national housing program. That book just came out five months ago. It’s five hundred pages of answers to the question you’ve just asked me.
But, put briefly, since the Liberals under Paul Martin cancelled the affordable housing program that Canada had been celebrated for—globally, in fact, by the UN—we’ve seen a skyrocketing crisis of homelessness, deteriorating public housing, and more people becoming house-poor. Then of course there’s aboriginal housing and the housing crisis affecting disabled people. And it just gets worse because there has been no investment, no program to ensure that every year there’s a certain number of thousands of affordable units built. Every year that goes by when that is not happening, you find yourself deeper in the hole.
I believe with this economic crisis we’re facing now, this is going to get much worse. That’s why in my speech [Sunday] outlining our expectations for the Speech from the Throne I reiterated the point that we need a national housing investment program. And, actually, that’s exactly what you need in a time of economic downturn, because it creates jobs at the same time as dealing with people’s basic need for a roof over their head.
Jack Layton's face graces the side of his campaign bus.
Photo by Tristan Brand.
In parts of the GTA, the wait for an affordable house is something like twenty-five years, and it’s just getting worse. How would you rate the Toronto area’s affordable housing scheme when compared to the rest of the country?
It’s in desperate straits, although I have to say that it’s very bad just about everywhere in Canada now. The only place that it’s not desperate is where plants have closed down, particularly in some northern communities where there was one central industry—usually forestry—that’s shut down, and people can’t even sell their houses now. But, in those cases, people have also lost their jobs, so they can’t pay their property taxes, which are going up rapidly because the big mill isn’t paying any property taxes anymore.
So just about everywhere you look, whether it’s an area that’s depressed or an area that’s booming like Calgary or Saskatoon, you’ve got a housing problem. And it’s simply because there are always going to be a certain number of people in society whose incomes are insufficient to cover the basic cost of putting a roof over their head and leaving them something leftover to buy food.
That’s why you need a percentage of the housing that’s available in any community at any given moment to be affordable—to be based on the rent that people can pay. And that’s because you will have low-income seniors, you will have low-income students, you will have single mothers and single parents who have to be at home and therefore have a low income, and you will have people with part-time or minimum-wage work, which is going to provide them with insufficient revenue to cover the cost of a housing unit in the so-called open market. So that’s why you have to have a certain number of thousands of affordable housing units built every year—so that there’s a percentage of your housing stock which is always related in some way to the incomes that people have available to them.
We built lots of fantastic housing units between the seventies and the year 2000 or so—non-profits, co-ops, seniors’ buildings, student buildings, buildings with special supports for people with various kinds of disabilities—and they fit into neighbourhoods beautifully. I mean, I’m not going to say there was never any problem, but virtually problem free. In fact, often when you built these co-ops and non-profits, which tended to have mixed incomes in them, some people paying full market rent and other people with a lower rent—
And you were one of those people.
Sure. And they fit right into the community. In fact, in many cases, they stimulated the redevelopment of a community in lands that were underused or kind of marginal, and in comes the non-profit or the co-op housing, and before you know it people are building condos next-door because the area has come to life. That’s what happened on the waterfront, it happened in St. Lawrence—I mean, there are lots of examples. But now that we don’t have these programs anymore, you really struggle to try and create that urban revitalization.
Now, there are some models that have happened despite the lack of federal action, just by dint of intense local effort. Don Mount, in my riding [of Toronto—Danforth], was probably the first one, where the old model from the sixties where everybody had a low income, and you began to get the feeling of a depressed area, and the housing was falling apart and they were going to just simply tear it down and sell it off for condos—and we all protested that and said, “No, why don’t we try something mixed? Why don’t we actually try to put some mixed housing in there, some people with market ownership and other people with housing that is affordable at low income?” And if you go to Dundas immediately east of the Don Valley Parkway now, just across that bridge, you’ll see the Don Mount redevelopment going on. It’s fantastic. Now they’re doing similar things in the southwest corner of Regent Park, where you can see some construction going on. It’s the kind of thing we should be doing all over Canada.
You’ve been harshly critical of former prime minister Martin for his approach to housing. What about Prime Minister Harper? How would you rate his performance on that issue?
Terrible. I mean, he’s turned his back on the whole housing issue. It’s true that there’s some money going into affordable housing construction now, but that was money—$1.6 billion—that was entirely the result of our NDP caucus saying we wouldn’t support the Martin budget unless he cancelled the corporate tax cut and put money into transit, housing, and post-secondary education. That’s where that $1.6 billion came from, and Mr. Harper is now dispensing that packet of money. It’s on its way out the door because we had set it up as a special foundation, a special fund, that couldn’t be dismantled. But he created no money beyond that toward the investment that’s required. And that’s roughly the investment we need every year—we need about one and a half billion dollars for a period of upwards of ten years before we’re really going to make a dent on this thing.
The now-demolished GM plant in Oshawa.
The now-demolished GM plant in Oshawa. Photo by Rick Harris.
Going back to the NDP’s priorities for the upcoming Throne Speech, the economy is the focus of three of those. What is your solution for the tanking economy?
We want a strategic approach to push up the revenue that we have available. That’s why we say this across-the-board tax giveaway to the banks and oil companies is not something they need, and it doesn’t produce jobs. The best example I give is John Deere, which got one of these across-the-board tax cuts and threw eight hundred people out of work, even though it made half a million dollars in the second quarter of this year. What we’re saying is take those funds and let’s be more strategic about them. Let’s invest in a stimulus package that would include a number of key elements.
An immediate infrastructure program—the money’s already allocated, let’s get it out the door. The cities and towns of this country have infrastructure programs that they could get going on right now. It doesn’t need any toying. They just simply need to put the tenders out, and ninety days later you’re going to have construction work taking place. Because they all have twenty-year plans for construction, reconstruction, maintenance, and so on, including things like public transit.
Second, there would be strategic investments and assistance for industry in key sectors. We think of forestry, for example. We think of the auto and other manufacturing sectors that are really struggling because they can’t get credit, amongst other things. If a company can’t get credit but is otherwise in a money-making position, let’s help secure that credit so they can keep going and don’t have to close a profitable plant because they can’t manage the cash flow. Let’s also make sure that we’re not giving tax breaks and giveaways to companies that are then going to shut the plant down and move the jobs overseas. That’s a complete waste of money.
It’s those people out of work who then have to turn to Employment Insurance programs, which were hit again by the Martin Liberals and which have been maintained in that starved status by Harper. So people who used to be able to turn to EI and get a portion of the salary they used to earn for a significant period of time, now most of them can’t get any help, even though they’ve been paying into EI for years as an insurance program that was supposed to help them when their family needed some cash to put food on the table. We want that fixed and restored as the kind of social safety net program that’s really working at exactly the time when it’s needed. That’s why it was built. And that would give stimulus to the local economy because then families will have a few bucks, they’ll shop locally, by and large, on things that they’ll get in their local stores. That’s going to boost economic activity just at the time we need it.
This, plus protection of savings and pensions—at a time when they’ve lost a big chunk of their value—to tide them over until the value rebuilds, these are some of the key economic measures that we’ve said are essential.
After [Monday’s] first ministers’ meeting, the prime minister hinted that a bailout for Ontario’s auto industry is a possibility, and Premier McGuinty seemed optimistic about that. Do you support a bailout for the auto industry in Ontario?
We support strategic assistance. A bailout doesn’t fix the leak; a strategic assistance approach would.
We laid out five years ago in quite a bit of detail what a green car manufacturing strategy for Canada would look like, where you make strategic investments in firms to allow them to transform themselves to [be able to] produce the vehicles that Canadians increasingly want, which are the ones that consume less fuel. That has the advantage of helping us meet our environmental targets under Kyoto, while at the same time creating work. So we would like to see that focus.
I’m beginning to hear some of that kind of language emerging from some of the statements being made by the prime minister, the premiers, and so on. We think it should be a real, significant transformation that takes place so we get out ahead of this curve that is so obviously one we have to pay attention to. We’ve got to use less fuel. It’s too expensive for people, it produces too much pollution, and besides, in the mid- and longer term, we’re not going to have these fuels. So let’s get moving on the transformation of the auto sector, and let’s assist that to happen.
What does the government need to do right now to address the climate change crisis?
We’ve got to act with the rest of the world. We have a golden opportunity to do that now in the midst of this economic crisis, because we’ve got to do things differently, and one of those things has to do with how we use and consume energy. We can’t be profligate wasters of energy and be successful as an economy, or even as a species. Some estimates suggest that we use energy at approximately one percent efficiency. There isn’t a single species on the planet that can survive at that level of inefficiency, or even an order of magnitude away from it. So let’s get moving.
The first thing you’re going to do is put hard limits on what the big polluters are doing, force them to pay when they exceed them, and take all of that money and invest it in transforming our energy use to create much more energy efficiency. I mentioned green cars, of course, and investing in transit systems is another obvious [example], and rail—but also much more local production, so there’s less transportation that’s required, particularly with things like food. A buying local policy, a buying Canadian policy for government procurement, so that goods have to travel less distance: that’s going to help.
Imagine if we went about trying to renovate all buildings in Canada, top to bottom, for energy efficiency. [That would] create all kinds of local work, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it would stimulate the development of all kinds of new, more energy efficient products, and it’s based on a Toronto success story called the Better Buildings Partnership—which is easily Googleable and which I had an opportunity to be involved in when I was involved with the Toronto Atmospheric Fund and in earlier days on city council—where we created this notion that we could retrofit thousands of buildings, create thousands of retrofit contracts, and [make] tens of thousands of jobs. And, indeed, that’s what happened. We should have that going right across the country.
Finally, I would certainly add that in making the big polluters pay, that money has got to go to solutions like renewable energy—wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, et cetera—and we need to invest there instead of subsidizing the tar sands.
Jack Layton orders coffee.
Photo by Jenna Marie Wakani from the NDP’s Flickr photostream.
The fifth and final part of your expectations for the Harper government is about democratic reform and changing the nature of the minority government situation. What does democratic reform mean to you?
It means ensuring that when sixty-two percent of the people of Canada want change, they get it. That’s what happened in this last election, and they didn’t get the change they wanted. Only thirty-seven [percent] voted for Harper. Almost two-to-one people voted against him, and he’s in power. South of the border, fifty-two percent of the people wanted change and they got it. So let’s have an electoral system that gives effect to the will of the people instead of standing in the way of the will of the people.
Three elections in a row now—in fact, I think we can say four, if we add in the year 2000, maybe even more, but certainly those four—we’ve had less than forty percent of the people voting for a government, and yet that government gets the power. It’s absurd, wrong, and totally undemocratic. Let’s grab a hold of this—people can now see how dysfunctional it is—and let’s bring proportional representation to Canada, so that political parties can run, they can lay out their program, people can vote for those parties, and their vote will not get essentially cast aside and disrespected by a result that puts in power the very party that was explicitly not the choice of the majority.
In the last election, three out of the five major leaders—you, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, and Green Leader Elizabeth May—were explicitly in favour of some form of proportional representation. Why do you think it was a complete non-issue, and has been a complete non-issue in campaigns, even though, for example, Senate reform continues to be a hot-button topic?
Well, we certainly tried to push it. I think one of the problems has been these referendums that have failed—there have been four of them I think now, three or four—and they’re not passing, so people are getting tired of it. But I’m saying, let’s find a strategy to get the possibilities for democratic renewal to the forefront again.
So what’s that strategy, do you think?
Well, we had done some work when Ed Broadbent was part of our caucus in the 2004–2006 minority parliament, and we moved it fairly far along. A special committee was set up—we negotiated that into the Speech from the Throne, actually—and Ed and those on the committee brought it all the way back to Parliament. Their recommendations passed Parliament, which were that a special group of Parliamentarians was going to develop a model for proportional representation and bring it back to Parliament, and a group of citizens in an engagement process to identify the fundamental principles that should be at the root of any reform was going to be launched. And all this would have been brought back to the House of Commons to be considered and adopted. But then when Harper was elected, that entire process came to a halt. It hasn’t been restarted, and we want to see it be restarted.
Talking about the political culture more generally, Prime Minister Harper has stated that one of his goals is to shift Canada’s political culture to the right. Do you think he’s succeeding in that goal?
No, and in fact I think that more and more people are drawing inspiration from what they see happening with [US President-elect Barack] Obama south of the border [as opposed to] what they see happening here.
What do you think is missing from Canada’s politics that is present now in the United States?
A more democratic electoral system that translates the wishes and will of a people into the political system. Like I said before, fifty-two percent of Americans voted for change and they got it. Sixty-two percent voted for change here and we didn’t. So we actually had more people who wanted to see change in Canada as a percentage than they did in the States, but yet we end up with a Conservative government because of our electoral system, which is completely warped and wrong.
But probably the key reason why that happened in the US is that they only have two major parties. So is that really a model for us? You’ve stated that proportional representation is the goal here, but in terms of the responsiveness to change, is the US really a model for Canada?
I think proportional representation is the model for Canada, because we have a multi-party system and have had for a very long period of time in this country. It’s part of our political culture here, going back many decades, and different parties come and go as a part of that process. But what we haven’t had is an effective way to translate that process into seats in the House and reflect the democratic will of the people.
It’s not that these models don’t exist. They exist virtually everywhere else in modern democracies. We are not a modern democracy. We’re using a system that was invented before the telephone—which was invented by a Canadian, or in Canada. We certainly make that plain. And, in fact, we’ve gone on to invent the BlackBerry here. We’ve gone through quantum leaps to perform in other areas, but we’ve left a system of representation in place from the Gutenberg era, including an unelected Senate, which is bad enough. But we have a first-past-the-post voting system that even the originators of that system in Britain have begun to replace, in terms of what’s been going on with Scotland and Wales, and could well come to Great Britain itself. Who knows? But for heaven’s sakes, let’s get moving here.
Jack Layton walks down the stairs of his campaign plane.
Photo by Jenna Marie Wakani from the NDP’s Flickr photostream.
You’ve been a fixture in the Toronto political scene for more than twenty-five years. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen take place here during that time?
Well, of course there’s been a complete transformation of the make-up of the city. There have always been immigrants flooding into Toronto, but the percentage of the population which has reasonably recently immigrated to Toronto is very, very large, and it’s very exciting in that respect. Of course, I’m intimately familiar with that, having married one of the said immigrants, Olivia Chow, who came here with her parents when she was thirteen in 1970. That’s one of the big changes.
I think another is that we’ve lost some of the leading edge that we had, because we’ve abandoned the policies that gave us that leading edge. Everyone was coming to cities like Toronto to see what made cities work, and it was the global model. And then we proceeded to take the very things that helped to make it work and stop doing them, like the funding of innovative affordable housing, like investing in infrastructure that kept us on the leading edge of environmental initiatives. We stopped expressways and built subways, instead of building Highway 407. We literally have abandoned these kinds of policies. And these are not abandoned by the city council so much—because the city council has, generally speaking, been calling for progressive change—but by the other orders of government. The province—in the Harris era in particular—and the federal government in the recent decade and a half have literally walked away from cities and from Toronto at the very time that it has become more important to be engaged with them.
Any final thoughts?
We’ve covered so much, if I started on final thoughts we’d never finish! [Laughs.]