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Without their bon Jack, the NDP's position in Quebec is suddenly shaky

New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton speaks during a news conference at the Periscope theater in Quebec City, September 23, 2008.

REUTERS/MATHIEU BELANGER/REUTERS/MATHIEU BELANGER

Quebec's embrace of the New Democratic Party always risked being a passing fancy, one of those mass flirtations Quebeckers begin and end with equal haste.

Without Jack Layton, the risk multiplies. Because without Mr. Layton, there would only be a rump NDP in Quebec, where the party managed to win a single seat three times before winning 59 of them in May.

Mr. Layton almost single-handedly captured the anti-Conservative vote in Quebec, and it seems he was well aware of the peril ahead for his party as he penned his final political testament released by his family on Monday. Along with young Canadians, the NDP, others battling cancer, only one province received a tailored message.

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Mr. Layton described the historic choice Quebeckers made May 2, joining other progressive Canadians to back the NDP and oppose the Conservatives. It was the right decision, Mr. Layton implored.

"You have elected a superb team of New Democrats to Parliament. They are going to be doing remarkable things in the years to come to make this country better for us all." If you just give them a chance, Mr. Layton could have added.

Six months ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Mr. Layton's death would trigger an outpouring of grief and admiration in Quebec equal to what you might find at a food co-operative in Vancouver or an industrial union hall in Toronto. If he was known, it was as a "bon Jack," the kind of bon vivant for whom you might buy a drink, but not deliver a vote.

Mr. Layton's initial fight with prostate cancer and a broken hip and his two star turns on a wildly popular talk show combined with a worn-out Bloc Québécois to suddenly turn a bon Jack into a good option.

Using a cane to lead a gaggle of political neophytes from all walks of life, Mr. Layton's breakthrough elevated him further. This province adores humility and good humour in politicians.

"You brought me back to the time of René Lévesque, who was, like you, a man of the people," Montrealer Jean Deraîche wrote on a tribute page. He was far from alone in evoking the most legendary of Quebec's modern leaders, not as an equal, but as a reminder.

If the NDP rose in Quebec on love for Jack, what's left will have to build on something else.

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The rest of the NDP caucus gets little love, mostly indifference, mild popularity or gentle ridicule. With the possible exception of Thomas Mulcair, one of Mr. Layton's potential successors, there are no household names. There is no core of credibility, as the party has long maintained in Ontario or the Prairies. Here, the activist backbone is thin.

Mr. Mulcair, who threatens to be all-powerful in the Quebec wing, has a short time to show he is a leader. All those MPs who have suddenly sprung to the big stage, such as Ruth Ellen Brosseau and interim leader Nycole Turmel, must rise above rocky starts and show credibility. The Orange Wave turned backward the usual process of getting elected; usually you have to prove yourself first.

They all have four years, at most, to show what they can do. But they'll have to do it without a bon Jack.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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