Jack Layton’s final words.

On an Ottawa sidewalk.

I’m not Canadian, and though I’ve recently tried to get a little bit more abreast of Canadian politics and culture (starting with the wonderful Canada! How does it work?, by Canadian extraordinaire Michelle Dean, at The Awl), I will confess that I had only the vaguest notion of who Jack Layton was before he died of cancer this week at age 61.

Who he was, was leader of the opposition New Democratic Party, but by all accounts, Jack Layton was also much more than that. I’m only beginning to learn, but I’ve learned enough to wish that I could have voted for him, and that he might still be alive and well up north of me, making the world a better, more loving place.

I say “loving” because commenter corkingiron tells us that Mr. Layton apparently advised the men with whom he worked to use words like “love” and “compassion” and “nurture” more often, and the barrage of quotes that Mr. Layton’s admirers are now sending around the internet feature the word “love” quite a lot. Love — in politics. Now that is a concept to bring tears of gratitude to my eyes.

At any rate, I wanted to share the above picture of what are being referred to as Mr. Layton’s final words — for, knowing that he was dying, he wrote a letter to Canada just this past Saturday. It was released within hours of his death on Monday — the above are the words with which he chose to close his farewell. (I’m thinking that whoever chalked those words on the sidewalk must have done so as part of the larger ad hoc memorial outside of Toronto’s City Hall, but I don’t know for sure).

The entire letter is a beautiful thing, both in the writer’s clear desire to continue to help the people and causes in which he believed as they continue to work to achieve their real-world goals, and in his simultaneous ability to transcend party and politics and appeal to all who might be reading his words, particular those who might be struggling with cancer. It made me think of Lincoln, frankly, and I urge you to read it, and I thank commenter JHarper2 for providing it in yesterday’s open thread. You might want also to read these tributes, left in today’s open thread by caoil: An open letter to my generation and A Tribute to Jack Layton (from the White Ribbon Campaign, “the largest effort in the world of men working to end violence against women”). Clearly, Mr. Layton was well-loved, and with good reason.

What really slays me is that as he lay dying, he wrote in the future tense.

My friends, love is better than anger.
Hope is better than fear.
Optimism is better than despair.
So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.
And we’ll change the world.


Update: Please also check out this blog by the woman who brought the chalk to Toronto City Hall in the first place, and then click on this gobsmacking picture of the square in front of city hall, post-chalk (both thanks to my Twitter pal @rosefox).

h/t Paul Dewar, Member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre and New Democrat Foreign Affairs Critic.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.



  1. corkingiron

     /  August 24, 2011

    Aw EE. You have me in tears. Again.Thank you so much for this.

    • It didn’t seem right for me to mention it in the post, but I was blowing my nose quite a bit as I wrote. That quote, and everything I’ve read since (that letter!) pretty much just hit me in the solar plexus.

  2. corkingiron

     /  August 24, 2011

    My only personal experience with him was when we found ourselves, back in the early Eighties, standing side by side and leafletting on behalf of the striking workers at Eaton’s in Toronto. (Think Macy’s ….umm, think a bankrupt Macy’s). We had both come from an NDP Provincial Council – and this was our lunch hour. The Council had been going on with a snorefest debate about God knows what (it is easy to get a bunch of progressives to agree on stuff like nationalizing banks – a lot harder to get a general consensus on breaking for lunch…..)

    We got into a hilarious and increasingly silly discussion about putting forward an amendment that would require every NDP member to prove – at least once a year – that they did, in fact, possess a sense of humour. So yes – Jack would and could punch you in the solar plexus – but he’d tickle you just to get a laugh as well.

    • That is an awesome story. What a lovely memory. I’m about to update with some links that I think you’ll particularly like, and that I think reflect a very similar feeling to that you express with this story. Stay tuned….

    • caoil

       /  August 24, 2011

      I think you should share some of these stories on the condolences page of the NDP site, corkingiron. They’re really sweet.

  3. caoil

     /  August 24, 2011

    This is lovely as usual, Emily. Time for a link on FB!

  4. taylor16

     /  August 24, 2011

    Oh, wow. That letter! Now that is a politician I wish I could have voted for. That’s a leader who truly wanted to make the country better, not just to make himself more famous.

    Thanks for putting this here, Emily. I’d seen the links elsewhere but hadn’t followed them before. Now I’m all teary. What a great guy he seemed to be.

  5. Thanks so much for writing this, Emily. It’s been a rough few days since I heard of Layton’s death on Monday morning; never before had I felt so much over the death of a public figure. I’ve been trying to figure out what all this sadness is – there’s the sense of loss of a great man who brought compassion and energy and humour into the Canadian political sphere at a time when politics was getting meaner and dirtier in our country. As a progressive (who’s voted NDP since I’ve been old enough to cast a ballot), I mourn for the movement that he made big. There’s just this deep hole there, and Canadians everywhere are feeling it too. The past few days, my Facebook feed has been filled with pictures and videos of the man, chronicles of the love story that was his marriage to MP Olivia Chow, and memories of him that make me fall in love with him all over again. He truly had an impact on so many of us.

    I’m trying to take from this sadness a sense of joy and optimism. Canadians of all political stripes have been moved by his call for love and compassion in politics, and I’m hoping that many will heed that call to make change, even if Parliament’s controlled by the cold and calculated Conservative party. Jack really believed in us, and even though it feels like he left too soon, he left at a time where his legacy was beginning in a big way. I’m trying to brush my tears off and buckle off so I can help keep that love and compassion and optimism going strong in Canada.

    • Oh, hi, oh I’m so glad you saw this and left a comment! It’s so nice to see you!

      As I’ve been reading along, and catching up with what the Canadians have known for years, I think that your hope that you and your fellow Canadians will be able to keep that love and compassion and optimism going seems to be the best possible response to his death. It’s surely what he would have wanted. I loved what the woman wrote in that open letter that I linked to above: “Thanks for letting me grow up knowing that ‘Jack’s had my back’. Now it’s our turn. We’ll finish this one for you.”

    • caoil

       /  August 24, 2011

      I think the hard part, as always, will be connecting across this wide expanse of country. I’m debating adding random people on my FB who’ve changed their profile pic to one of the ‘Jack’ posters.

      Also – anyone who can get CBC: CBC Radio One will air the funeral service of Jack Layton live this Saturday @ 1:30pm EST. Hosted by Alison Smith & Michael Enright. (via CBC’s twitter) I believe Stephen Lewis is delivering the eulogy.

  6. Also, I’d suggest those of you who weren’t familiar with Jack before his death, I invite you to google “Jack Layton Olivia Chow Pride” and try not to fall in love with this couple. Or watch this video,and not want to be his best friend.
    I just moved away from Toronto the day before he died, otherwise, I would be right there adding to the sidewalk chalk tribute at Nathan Philips Square. Here’s a panoramic close-up for whoever’s interested: http://torontoist.com/topics/layton-memorial.php. I’ve been looking at this photo every time I feel a surge of sadness, and it makes me feel that much better.

    • Ah, I’m sorry about that bad HTML!

      • I’ll go in and fix it for you!

        …there’s Arabic up on that wall, I think… Arabic or Persian, I can’t tell. Make sure you click through to the blog by the woman who brought the chalk, and the overhead picture of the square. It’s all amazing and wonderful stuff.

  7. JHarper2

     /  August 24, 2011

    Watching the coverage of Mr Layton’s death on the newschannels on Monday, I was struck by how every reporter, columnist, and commentator was so personally moved by his death and his life. They talked of his fun, his joy in music, his playing of music, his joy of life. his determination in his causes. One conservative reporter recalled how Mr Layton had been his professor at Ryerson University and how they had wrangled. He recalled he had got a D in the course, a subject that he and Mr Layton had laughed about years later. His grade for Mr Layton as a person and a politician: A+.

    Tonight he is lying in state in the foyer of the House of Commons, where he spoke to reporters so often. People lined up for hours before the foyer was opened to the public, and the foyer was kept open hours after it was scheduled to be closed as the lines were so long.
    Olivia Chow MP, his wife, and Jack Layton’s children came out repeatedly to thank the people waiting in line and to tell them how much their presence meant to the family.

    I thought though, as I watched the pictures of the hearse drive up Parliament Hill, how often he had ridden his bicycle up that hill, and was sad that he would do so no more.

    Tomorrow he will be taken home to Toronto, where he will lie in state in the City Hall where he laboured so long. As he starts his last ride home, the carillon of bells in the Peace Tower of Parliament will play O Canada, and Imagine by John Lennon.

  8. maryk

     /  August 25, 2011

    Cheers, Emily — thanks for your thoughtfulness.

  9. Lola Raincoat

     /  August 25, 2011

    Thank you for this (and sorry that I’m just now getting around to reading it.) We’re all still very sad here. Amazing numbers of people here in Toronto have Jack stories to tell. People were swapping them in the locker room at the gym yesterday, and in line at the supermarket, and then I went for physio and it turned out that my physical therapist knew him too. I may be the only person in town who never met him – we’ve met Olivia Chow, his wife, a couple of times, but not him.

    True-life Jack facts:

    My PT was telling me that when he married Olivia he learned to speak fluent Cantonese, and they raised their kids speaking Cantonese too. He had a PhD in political science from my university and I’ve occasionally heard colleagues sigh over what a loss it was to their field when he left academia to go into politics. And then somebody linked me to this:


    He was so serious a Trekkie that he had costumes made for himself and Olivia. Find me another politician of any stripe so willing to risk looking silly.

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