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Jack Layton, led New Democrats to main opposition role in Canada; July 18, 1950 -- Aug. 22, 2011

TORONTO -- Jack Layton, a folksy and charismatic political leader who guided his New Democrats party to become the dominant opposition group in Canada's Parliament while battling severe health problems, died Monday of cancer. He was 61.

Layton hobbled through the parliamentary election campaign earlier this year as he recovered from a broken hip and prostate cancer. Under his upbeat leadership, the leftist New Democrats outpolled the Liberals and became the official opposition party for the first time in their 50-year history.

The New Democrats party issued a statement saying Layton died peacefully at his Toronto home, surrounded by family and loved ones. Only weeks ago, a gaunt Layton shocked Canadians when he held a news conference to announce he was fighting a second bout of cancer.

The spring campaign started out looking like a straight battle between Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Liberals' Michael Ignatieff, with Layton recovering from prostate cancer and a broken hip.

But Layton's party scored its historic win by garnering 103 seats in the May federal election, up from a previous 37.

Layton's cheerful message, his strong performance in debates and his popularity in the French-speaking province of Quebec went over well with voters. He once was voted the politician Canadians would most want to have a beer with.

He was a native of Montreal, and a photo of him wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey and pouring a beer during the hockey playoffs went viral in Quebec.

But Harper's Conservative government won a coveted majority government in part because the left-center vote in Canada split between the Liberals and New Democrats.

Layton announced in February 2010 that he had been battling prostate cancer, but he continued a busy schedule while getting treatment.

Layton was the son of a former federal Progressive Conservative cabinet minister and the grandson of a prominent provincial politician in Quebec. He had said that although his father was a conservative, he truly cared about those less well off.

In a touching letter written Saturday and released hours after his death, Layton called for a Canada that shares its benefits more fairly and asked Canadians to give his party a chance in the years to come.

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