Canada became a nation in mourning Monday at news of the death of Opposition Leader Jack Layton.
“On behalf of all Canadians, I salute Jack’s contribution to public life, a contribution that will be sorely missed,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“I know one thing: Jack gave his fight against cancer everything he had. Indeed, Jack never backed down from any fight.”
Along with many ordinary Canadians offering their condolences on Twitter, Peterr85 wrote:
“Rest in Peace Mr. Layton. Though I myself am not an NDP supporter, to watch a man fight his entire political life to achieve change and earn a place amongst our leaders is admirable.
“Mr. Layton embodied the nature of Canadian democracy, complete with the urge for change matched equally with a dedication to see a challenge through.
“You shall be missed, Sir.”
On Parliament Hill, where Layton was Opposition Leader, and at Toronto City Hall, where Layton was a councillor for 18 years, flags were lowered to half-staff and will remain lowered until after his funeral. Flags were also lowered on federal buildings in Toronto.
Scores of Canadians streamed by the centennial memorial flame on Parliament Hill over the noon hour. Some left messages, and flowers, others left a couple of Orange Crush tins.
“Jack, you lead with sheer decency, and passed with outstanding dignity. I pray you spirit finds its way into Canadian politics once more,” read one signed by a woman.
On Twitter, a poster using the name Shannon P. wrote:
“It’s like losing your favourite Uncle. His enthusiasm for Canada was a tidal wave that swept us all along, regardless of political stripe. An honourable man who loved Canada and Canadians, a good man we can all be proud of.”
Layton’s chief of staff and long-time aide, Anne McGrath, sat with Layton for four hours on Saturday, the day he wrote his final letter to Canadians, she told the Star’s Joanna Smith.
“His voice was stronger than it had been at the time that he did the statement” on national television in July.
“He was sitting up in a chair. He looked very thin and he had some periods of pain, but he was very alert and he was very much wanting to talk about what was going to happen if he wasn’t able to be back when Parliament came back and what was going to happen if he didn’t come back at all, if he passed away,” McGrath said.
He was both philosophical and practical in their last hours together, she said.
“He was philosophical in the sense that he knew we had come together on this amazing journey to where we’ve come to, but that he may not be around for the rest of it, but it had to continue on,” said McGrath.
He recognized the importance of an energetic leadership convention to choose his successor, she said.
Layton’s talent lay in his ability to connect with ordinary people in the same way he did with those who knew him best behind the scenes.
“He just had such personal charm and willingness to listen and interest in people and commitment to what he was doing. When the cameras are off and the notebooks are away, he’s still the same person.”
New Democrat MP Libby Davies, one of the deputy leaders, was in tears after she learned the news at the annual Canadian Medical Association meeting in St. John’s, Nfld.
Davies, the party health critic, said Layton devoted his life to making Canada a better country.
“He was a great Canadian. He gave his life to this country. His commitment to social justice and equality and a better Canada in the world and at home. I think that’s how people saw him,” Davies told reporters.
“They saw the courage that he had. He faced cancer and he kept on working, doing his job, because he felt so strongly about what he believed in.”
Davies said she and her NDP caucus colleagues worried about how hard Layton was working during the spring election given his battle with cancer and recent hip surgery, but said they respected his wishes to campaign.
“No one ever worked harder than Jack Layton, day by day, year by year, but the kind of man that he was, he was someone who always gave his all, that’s who Jack Layton was,” said Davies.
From all sides of the political spectrum, people offered their tributes and shared their sorrow.
“Jack’s legacy includes many years of visionary work on the environment and powerful advocacy for the unique role of cities in Canada’s future. Jack Layton was also fiercely loyal to working people and their struggles,” said a statement from the Toronto and York Region Labour Council.
Peter Coleman, president of the conservative National Citizens Coalition, said ideological differences were unimportant at times like these.
“Jack’s legacy will live on in Canadian politics. He will always be remembered as a spirited leader, a strong debater, and a uniquely compassionate individual,” he said.
“His tenacity to fight to make Canada a more compassionate and equitable country will be missed,” said United Food and Commercial Workers union president Wayne Hanley.
Former Toronto mayor David Miller also mourned the loss of Layton’s “personal courage and relentless optimism.”
Said Miller: “I had the privilege of knowing Jack for 25 years, proudly serving with him at the City of Toronto before he was elected as Member of Parliament.
“Whether as a city councillor or as an MP, Jack always fought hard, and successfully, to make a better world for all Torontonians and Canadians.
As a councillor, his leadership in fighting against homelessness and for our environment both resulted in permanent change for the better.”
Nycole Turmel, Layton’s own choice to fill in for him as NDP leader, spoke for herself and the party:
“New Democrats today are mourning the loss of a great Canadian.
“Jack was a courageous man. It was his leadership that inspired me, and so many others, to run for office. We – Members of Parliament, New Democrats and Canadians – need to pull together now and carry on his fight to make this country a better place.
“And we remember the Tommy Douglas quote Jack included in every email he sent: “Courage my friends, ’tis never too late to build a better world.”
Federal Liberal Leader Bob Rae said he cried upon hearing the news of Layton’s death, the Star’s Rob Ferguson reported.
“Sometimes the world has a way of breaking your heart and a lot of us feel that way today,” said Rae, his voice breaking. He declined to talk about the political implications of Layton’s passing.
“All of us should take enormous heart from the way in which Jack conducted himself over the last several months, indeed several years, as he’s battled cancer.”
Rae, a former NDP premier of Ontario, recalled, “There were some New Democrats, who when I ran as a Liberal wouldn’t embrace my presence on a daily basis. Jack was not one of those people. Jack never took things personally, never saw things personally.”
There were also some poignant memories from Jamey Heath, who began working on Layton’s 2002 leadership campaign and eventually became his chief of staff.
“He was probably the truest people person I’d ever met,” he told the Star‘s Allan Woods.
Heath recalled one time returning from an event in Toronto to Layton’s house. When they arrived there were about 40 people sitting in his living room holding a meeting.
“I turned to Jack and I said, ‘What is this?’ He said, ‘We give keys out to people in the community so they can come by and use our space to hold a meeting,’” Heath said.
“I looked at him and said, ‘You’re insane. There are people you don’t know sitting in your room when you’re not home.’
“People looked at him during the (2011) campaign and they saw this ‘smiling Jack’ and this ‘bon Jack’ and all the rest of it. It was exactly who he was. He didn’t have airs.”
Heath also recalled Layton hosting an auction in a room full of Chinese senior citizens – in Chinese.
“I was sitting at the back of the room and this guy was auctioning off whatever it was in Chinese in a room full of senior citizen Chinese ladies and I’ve never heard so much laughter. They just loved him.”
Over Christmas in 2002, Heath recalled, Layton and Olivia Chow spent three weeks in Saskatchewan, where most people thought he didn’t stand a chance of gaining support.
They’d arrange a meeting over coffee in the afternoon in one town, drive along to a different town for dinner, and yet another for breakfast the next morning.
“I was constantly amazed at how he never got tired,” Heath said.
Heath said he was regularly petrified to arrive at work in Ottawa each morning only to be greeted with a stream of late night emails from Layton demanding that a press conference be convened to talk about the latest injustice in the news.
“If there were newspapers printed on Christmas Day, he would have held a press conference on Christmas Eve,” Heath said.
“Collectively, Canadian hearts are breaking,” said Green Leader Elizabeth May. “Jack will always be remembered for his unfailing love of Canada and his dedication to this country and its citizens.”
Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett (St. Paul’s), who was a Toronto doctor, recalled caring for Layton’s children when they were young.
“I can remember a couple of Saturday-morning clinics, where he brought Michael in or brought Sarah in,” Bennett, who had tears in her eyes, told the Star’s Joanna Smith and other reporters in St. John’s, Nfld., where she and Liberal health critic Hedy Fry were attending the annual CMA meeting.
“I think as family doctors we just feel that we don’t have magic wands and that this street-fighter lost the big fight with the body betrayal, it means that somehow there is something bigger than we.
“He had the biggest success of the career and of his party in May and now it’s just oh so sad.”
Former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney called Layton the “heart and soul” of the New Democratic Party, whose political accomplishments included making it a truly national party with its historic breakthrough in Quebec in the recent election.
“It was a huge achievement,” he told the Star’s Richard Brennan
Mulroney said he had a long telephone chat with Layton after the NDP captured 59 seats in Quebec.
He said Layton wanted some tips on how to handle such large and for the most part inexperienced Quebec caucus, knowing that Mulroney faced a similar situation in 1984 when the Tories won 59 seats.
“We had a very good conversation,” he said.
Mulroney said Layton always reminded him of Robert Layton, Jack’s father, who served in Mulroney’s cabinet and was national caucus chair.
“His father was the incarnation of an honest man, a man of integrity. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree,” Mulroney said.
Veteran NDP MP Pat Martin (Winnipeg Centre) said his leader and friend made structural changes to the party to make sure it was bigger than any one person.
“Jack has left us in good shape institutionally,” he said.
Martin said Layton, among other things, will be remembered for giving Quebecers a federalist alternative to the Bloc Quebecois.
“We may have saved confederation. That’s quite a legacy,” Martin told the Star’s Richard Brennan.
“Jack was an exceptional politician,” said Robin Sears, who served as national campaign director for the NDP, and as executive producer of the radio and TV campaigns in three election campaigns.
“He had three qualities that gave him that ability and that made him an impressive human being: he listened deeply and carefully, especially to tone and body language; he spoke to everyone – friends, enemies, opponents – always soaking in new intelligence and wisdom; he kept on learning and growing.
“Tough for any of us not to get stuck in a groove, harder still for leaders. The tragedy is that Jack 10 years from now would have been even more impressive than the man we lost today.”
“Canada has lost a man of courage and great integrity who embodied the values dearest to Canadians,” said former governor-general Michaëlle Jean in a posting on Twitter.
Jean’s tenure spanned the December 2008 parliamentary crisis, when Layton and the other political opposition leaders expressed non-confidence in the Harper government’s fiscal update, and the NDP and Liberals offered to replace it, with vote-by-vote support from the BQ.
Jean opted to allow Harper to suspend parliament for several weeks, saving Harper’s government.
Said the current Governor-General, David Johnston, “He dedicated his life to serving his fellow citizens. He did this with so much grace. He will be missed.”
U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson offered condolences from “the American people,” and his personal memories:
“I will never forget the image of Jack campaigning as the happy warrior. His energy, enthusiasm and passion for politics and for the Canadian people were undeniable. Something I will never forget. A standard for all of us.”
“Our one consolation is that Canada and its communities will continue to benefit from Jack’s legacy,” said Berry Vrbanovic, the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, in remembering his predecessor. “The most fitting tribute to him would be to build on it.”
That legacy, he said, included laying the foundation for the Green Municipal Fund and “badly needed infrastructure investments in our communities,” as well as supporting international efforts to fight HIV in African communities supported by Canadian municipalities’ development work.
Former NDP leader Alexa McDonough, whom Layton replaced as leader, said Layton “had a big vision for this country.”
He took the party to a place where no other leader had been able to, she said, and his death just as he won his greatest political victory “seems so cruel.”
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Layton “taught Canadians a new kind of politics. He inspired a generation of voters with his principles of compassion, fairness and equality. He spoke to all Canadians, in the cities, in the north, in the country and on the coasts.
“We’ll miss you, Jack.”
With files from Tonda MacCharles