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Layton's death leaves NDP caucus in Quebec a 'bit orphaned'

His personality -- and his reputation for being a "bon gars'' -- was largely credited for a stunning NDP surge that saw the party win 59 of Quebec's 75 seats in last May's election.

As Canadians mourn the loss of NDP leader Jack Layton, Quebecers who supported him in record numbers in this year's federal election have an extra burden to bear: uncertainty about the fate of the party now that he's gone.

The Canadian Press has the story:

MONTREAL -- Even before his death, Jack Layton cast a long shadow over the motley group that forms the NDP's Quebec caucus.

It was his personality -- and his reputation for being a "bon gars'' -- that was largely credited for a stunning NDP surge that saw the party win 59 of Quebec's 75 seats in last May's election.

The party's candidates in the province were nearly an afterthought despite their role in ending nearly two decades of Bloc Quebecois dominance.

But with expectations now high about what the NDP can deliver Quebecers, the group must emerge from a shadow that has just become so much bigger.

Layton's death means the party's Quebec MPs will try to consolidate their gains without the man who led them into battle.

"It leaves us a bit orphaned at the moment,'' said Guy Caron, president of the NDP's Quebec caucus.

"We will miss Jack Layton as a leader, that's obvious. I don't think we can hide that.''

In an indication of just how important the province is to the party's future, Layton's deathbed letter to Canadians included a whole paragraph addressed to Quebec.

It reassures Quebecers that the MPs they elected on May 2 are indeed up to the task of being a progressive voice for the province in Ottawa.

"You made the right decision then; it is still the right decision today; and it will be the right decision right through to the next election, when we will succeed, together,'' the letter reads.

The NDP's Quebec caucus is a disparate group composed of many political rookies, including some university students.

Since the election, several of them have drawn criticism for their inexperience and past ties to sovereignty.

Even interim party leader Nycole Turmel hasn't been able to duck the broadsides, coming under attack for having held a membership in the Bloc Quebecois until deciding to run for the NDP.

A group of NDP MPs gathered in Quebec City on Monday to pay tribute to Layton. It was an emotional news conference that hinted at the scope of the loss for the party's new members.

"He was really a very, very great man,'' said Annick Papillon, who represents the riding of Quebec. "There hasn't been anyone in politics like him for a long time.''

Raymond Cote called Layton's death an "enormous loss.''

"We were privileged to have him as leader and as a friend and to be around him,'' said Cote, the MP for Beauport-Limoilou.

It is Quebec's linguistic and constitutional status that arguably presents the most formidable obstacle for the new crop of MPs.

Layton forged a niche position within the Canadian political spectrum, incorporating the demands of Quebec nationalists within the fold of a federalist party.

It was a position that prompted Pierre Curzi, a former Parti Quebecois member of the legislature and a well-known hardline sovereigntist, to tweet that Layton "briefly incarnated for Quebec the hope for change.''

To his enticing campaign promises, Layton added sheer force of personality -- a combination that resulted in the party's major breakthrough in Quebec.

The NDP leader liked to play up his Quebec roots. Even though his professional life was spent mostly in Toronto, he never missed a chance to remind Quebec audiences that he was born and raised in Hudson, just off the island of Montreal.

Layton spoke French with an accent but it was an Anglo-Quebecer's accent and one that was instantly recognizable to native speakers here.

It gave him an edge negotiating Quebec's media, culminating in his convincing performance on "Tout le monde en parle.''

Layton's appearance on the wildly popular Radio-Canada show in April sealed his reputation as a "bon jack,'' a popular expression meaning ''good guy.''

It triggered a rise in the polls that refused to slacken despite the best guesses of Quebec's chattering classes.

Skeptics will question whether the NDP is able to maintain its popularity in Quebec without Layton's galvanizing presence.

Those close to the party say it is important not to overestimate Layton's role at the expense of those working behind him.

"The party is bigger than Jack, even though sometimes it didn't appear that way,'' said Diana Bronson, a former policy director for Layton who now lives in Montreal.

"The 59 MPs who have been elected for four years have only gone through a few months, so they have a lot of time before they meet the polls again.''

Caron said Layton's legacy lay in a way of conducting politics that emphasized optimism as opposed to cynicism. It was an approach that resonated with Quebecers, he said.

"He saw politics differently,'' Caron added. "It's up to us MPs to carry this torch.''

But analysts predicted it would be difficult to find a replacement for Layton who will be able to move as easily in so many different political circles.

"With Layton we had someone who was mostly identified with Toronto, but who grew up in Quebec, spoke French well ... and did well on Quebec television programs,'' said McGill professor Will Straw, who heads the university's Institute for the Study of Canada.

"The choice of a leader who stands for their significant inroads in Quebec but also builds on the NDP's traditional strength in Ontario, British Columbia and elsewhere ... is going to be a real challenge.''

Straw believes that arithmetic favours the next leader being from Quebec. He said the likely front-runner is Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair, who was the party's lone Quebec MP before the May 2 election.

Mulcair is largely credited with laying the groundwork for the Quebec surge. He is also known in Quebec from his days as a provincial cabinet minister.

His office did not return calls on Monday.

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