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Jack Layton’s municipal legacy had an impact far beyond Toronto - Toronto Star

August 22, 2011
Laurie Monsebraaten, Social Justice Reporter
Toronto Star

NOTE: This article has been edited from a previous version.

You could be forgiven for mistaking Jack Layton’s city hall office in the 1980s and ’90s for a student debating club.

Layton was teaching political science at Ryerson University in 1982 when former mayor John Sewell invited him to be his running mate for alderman in a downtown ward.

Many of Layton’s students followed their gregarious, blue-jean-clad professor in his quest to put ideas into action at city hall, working on his winning campaign and then in his office for free.

Sewell marveled at Layton’s ability to “bring people together.”

“Jack had great energy and imagination,” he recalled Monday. “He had this tremendous ability to think of new ideas and bring them to fruition.”

Sewell didn’t run again in 1984, but Layton — his office buzzing with students and community activists — went on to champion social and environmental change in Toronto and later the country.

As president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in 2001, his quest to bring new power, money and respect to urban centres set the stage for Ottawa to send a portion of the federal gas tax to cities. And his work on affordable housing and homelessness paved the way for a $1 billion federal-provincial-municipal housing program and federal funds to fight homelessness.

Along with his wife, Olivia Chow, who was also a city councillor until she became an NDP MP in 2006, Layton was a master at building political alliances.

“Councillor Layton, Howard Moscoe and Olivia could initiate debate and control it, because they were so well-read and they had student researchers. They had a lot of information at their fingertips and they used it adroitly,” recalled Councillor Norm Kelly.

“I think Jack’s strength was that if he couldn’t win you over on an issue 100 per cent, he would settle for 75 or 50, to advance the issue — and he’d do it with a smile.”

As chair of the city’s board of health in the mid-1980s, Layton brought in the city’s first anti-smoking bylaw and promoted initiatives to prevent AIDS and HIV, including the country’s first needle exchange.

In 1991, he established the White Ribbon campaign to counter violence against women. He was an early supporter of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights.

As chair of the Gardiner Expressway Task Force in the late 1980s, he recommended tearing down the elevated highway that separates the city from the lake. A decade later, the amalgamated city under Mel Lastman did remove its eastern stub.

In 1991, long before climate change was a household phrase, Layton, along with his executive assistant Dan Leckie and councillor Tony O’Donohue, spurred creation of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund. The fund provides seed money to help businesses make their buildings more energy-efficient. In the early 2000s, Ottawa earmarked federal funds for municipal environmental initiatives as a result of Layton’s pioneering work.

When Layton became head of FCM, he “cross-fertilized” the best environmental initiatives from across Canada, said Franz Hartman, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance and Layton’s executive assistant and environmental advisor at City Hall from 1998 to 2003.

“That was Jack’s brilliance. He would bring unusual suspects together, from the business community, the labour community, the environmental community and local groups, and say: ‘These are the two or three things we want to work on. Let’s figure out how to do it,” Hartman said.

After running for mayor in 1991 and losing to June Rowlands, Layton formed an environmental consulting company. But he was re-elected to Metro Council in 1994, representing Riverdale.

When Lastman became mayor in 1997, he appointed Layton to chair the city’s subcommittee on homelessness.

“I wanted to take all the people who sleep on the streets and put them in jail,” Lastman recalled. But Layton changed his mind.

MPP Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of Research and Innovation, was Winnipeg mayor when Layton headed the cities federation.

“Many people remember Layton for his charm, charisma, optimism and a swagger that is endearing,” Murray said.

“I don’t think people fully recognize what a good political mechanic he was. He knew how to fix things and put things together.”

With files from David Rider, Joanna Smith and Robyn Doolittle and Galit Rodan

As originally published here: http://www.thestar.com/news/article/1043387

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