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Editors, news directors select Jack Layton as 2011's Newsmaker of the Year


OTTAWA _ John Gilbert Layton wore dozens of different name tags in his decades of public service: activist, guitarist, father and finally, leader of the official Opposition.

Most knew the NDP leader by another name: Jack.

No other Canadian dominated the headlines like Layton in 2011, making him the clear choice for Newsmaker of the Year by editors and news directors participating in the annual survey of newsrooms across the country by The Canadian Press.

Layton received 90 per cent of the votes -- one of the most overwhelming margins in the 65-year history of the CP Newsmaker voting. The next closest was Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who received just five per cent of the vote totals.

Also earning votes were Canada's new female premiers, the protesters at the heart of the Occupy Canada movement, former auditor general Sheila Fraser and the Grande Prairie Composite Warriors football team.

"Jack Layton single-handedly shaped Canada's political narrative in 2011, from the decimation of the Bloc Quebecois, to the marginalization of the Liberal party, to the utter vacuum left on Parliament Hill by his death,'' said Brodie Fenlon, senior news editor, The Huffington Post Canada.

"We watched the drama of this scrappy underdog, cane in hand, pulling off an astonishing victory only to be felled months later before he could truly make something of it.''

The Canadian Press also conducted a parallel survey in conjunction with Yahoo! Canada to allow the public to make its own choices for Newsmaker of the Year. The public results were no less clear: it was Layton by a landslide.

The late NDP leader claimed fully half of the online votes cast, with hockey commentator Don Cherry a distant second at 16 per cent. Prime Minister Stephen Harper garnered 10 per cent of the vote, narrowly edging the Occupy Canada protesters at 9.5 per cent.

That the public came to know Layton on a first-name basis wasn't the result of a slick marketing campaign, though the 2011 election effort marked his slickest one yet.

His smiling face peered from every poster; NDP candidates -- especially in Quebec -- ran not on their names, but his.

"He's the person responsible for the NDP's status as the official Opposition, a status based on its landslide victory in Quebec and the near-disappearance of the Bloc Quebecois, which shook the entire sovereignty movement,'' said Josee Boileau, managing editor of Montreal's Le Devoir newspaper.

"The importance of Jack in this historic breakthrough -- which is even more important than the fact Stephen Harper's Conservatives now form a majority government -- has become even more obvious since his death, an event that has completely weakened his party.''

The brand that Jack built didn't come through sterile focus group testing in boardrooms. It came from years of being himself.

As a teacher at Toronto-area universities, he would invite students into his home or take them out for a night of spirited debate at the local pub.

As a city councillor, he and his wife Olivia, who also later became an MP, would ride their tandem bicycle through rallies during the dog days of Toronto summers and in the pelting rains of fall.

"In some ways, Jack Layton is like all of us,'' Chow said in an interview.

"He's your next door neighbour -- your next door neighbour who wants to do something that's good for the community and for the country, and he happens to be in a position to do a little bit of that. So I think people felt they lost someone that they know.''

He was known for wearing funny hats into fundraisers, chatting with workers in line at the Tim Hortons, and bringing his guitar out for folk-song sing-alongs on campaign planes and in meeting rooms across the country.

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