22 Aug

With death at hand, Layton leaves love letter to Canada

By Naomi Lakritz, Postmedia News August 22, 2011 6:02 PM
NDP leader Jack Layton delivers a keynote speech at the party's 50th anniversary convention in Vancouver in this June 19, 2011 file photo.

NDP leader Jack Layton delivers a keynote speech at the party’s 50th anniversary convention in Vancouver in this June 19, 2011 file photo.

Photograph by: Ben Nelms, Reuters

CALGARY — It’s hard to write about someone who has just passed away when that individual is a public figure whom you’ve never met. The temptation to lapse into a tone of eulogistic cliche is there because you don’t know him personally, and you do not share the kind of knowledge of him that is part of his family’s lore. However, to adopt the slightest pretence of the latter would be phoney and presumptuous, as well as an unwanted invasion of his family’s privacy.

You can only comment on the public persona. And of the late NDP leader Jack Layton’s public persona, much is being said, in the immediacy of his passing, about his energy, his optimism, his steadfastness to principles, his likability and the caring he showed for everyone he met. But what strikes me is his love for Canada, a sentiment so intense that he wrote a love letter to this country barely 48 hours before his death. The letter is dated Aug. 20, and he died in the early morning hours of Aug. 22.

I’ve never heard of a political leader doing such an extraordinary thing.

The last words of Jack Layton are a testament to the dignity and nobility of his spirit, the same dignity and nobility with which he announced a month ago that he was taking some time off to battle a new form of cancer. It’s possible that the cancer was not a new, unrelated cancer; it’s possible that his prostate cancer had actually metastasized, but that he didn’t want to utter that ugly word publicly and subject himself to the spate of living obituaries he knew would instantly spill out in the media.

Canadians thought — and hoped — that he was coming back in September; perhaps even as he made that statement last month, he already knew that he wouldn’t be. What he knew and when he knew it is a matter of speculation. Politicians are entitled to privacy, too.

But what there is no need to speculate on, because it is right there before our eyes, is the depth of his love for this beautiful country and its people.

His care and concern for ordinary Canadians was no political smiley face pasted on for the purpose of getting votes. It was genuine; it was part of his character. The proof of that is in the letter, for among all the obvious goodbyes he makes — to his party, to youth, to his supporters — his last words are for other cancer patients. Dying, he urges them not to be disheartened by his own death; he selflessly reaches out to pass them the torch of hope, even as he knew all hope had been extinguished for him.

“You must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined and focused on the future,” Layton wrote.

It is not surprising that his deathbed words were directed at ordinary Canadians, for those are the people he championed throughout his political career. His championship of them included embracing the unassailable principles behind Canada’s socialized health-care system, and extended to homelessness, workers’ rights, domestic violence, the environment and climate change — anything that affected quality of life for all Canadians, especially if they were not on the high end of the financial spectrum.

A friend of mine who passed away from breast cancer once described what it was like to live with the disease. She’s been dead for more than a decade, but I never forgot her words.

“Every morning, you wake up and for a moment, you don’t remember. Then, the first thing you think is, ‘I have cancer,’ ” she said.

Jack Layton woke up every morning to that thought; yet, on one of his last mornings, he spoke optimistically to other cancer patients of a new dawn for them.

What an awesome human being.

The Love Letter To Canada

Dear Friends,

Tens of thousands of Canadians have written to me in recent weeks to wish me well. I want to thank each and every one of you for your thoughtful, inspiring and often beautiful notes, cards and gifts. Your spirit and love have lit up my home, my spirit, and my determination.

Unfortunately my treatment has not worked out as I hoped. So I am giving this letter to my partner Olivia to share with you in the circumstance in which I cannot continue.

I recommend that Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmel continue her work as our interim leader until a permanent successor is elected.

I recommend the party hold a leadership vote as early as possible in the New Year, on approximately the same timelines as in 2003, so that our new leader has ample time to reconsolidate our team, renew our party and our program, and move forward towards the next election.

A few additional thoughts:

To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live their lives, I say this: please don’t be discouraged that my own journey hasn’t gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.

To the members of my party: we’ve done remarkable things together in the past eight years. It has been a privilege to lead the New Democratic Party and I am most grateful for your confidence, your support, and the endless hours of volunteer commitment you have devoted to our cause. There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause. But that cause is much bigger than any one leader. Answer them by recommitting with energy and determination to our work. Remember our proud history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind. Let’s continue to move forward. Let’s demonstrate in everything we do in the four years before us that we are ready to serve our beloved Canada as its next government.

To the members of our parliamentary caucus: I have been privileged to work with each and every one of you. Our caucus meetings were always the highlight of my week. It has been my role to ask a great deal from you. And now I am going to do so again. Canadians will be closely watching you in the months to come. Colleagues, I know you will make the tens of thousands of members of our party proud of you by demonstrating the same seamless teamwork and solidarity that has earned us the confidence of millions of Canadians in the recent election.

To my fellow Quebecers: On May 2nd, you made an historic decision. You decided that the way to replace Canada’s Conservative federal government with something better was by working together in partnership with progressive-minded Canadians across the country. You made the right decision then; it is still the right decision today; and it will be the right decision right through to the next election, when we will succeed, together. 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.

To young Canadians: All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada. Young people have been a great source of inspiration for me. I have met and talked with so many of you about your dreams, your frustrations, and your ideas for change. More and more, you are engaging in politics because you want to change things for the better. Many of you have placed your trust in our party. As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.

And finally, to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.

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.

All my very best,
Jack Layton

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