Dear Jack Layton:
I don’t know if you remember me, but I will never forget you.
We met in the mid-1990s, briefly, during the city council elections in Toronto. I was a journalism student at Ryerson University then. We were encouraged to take an interest in local politics and report on those issues. And since your wife, Olivia Chow, was running in the district where I lived, I turned out to observe at her campaign headquarters, and spent several hours watching the votes roll in. It was no sacrifice at all, since I was a strong progressive already, and I was delighted to meet the both of you. You both impressed me as excellent, dedicated local politicians, warm and open, very different from the usual blusterers, blowhards and talking heads who made the nightly news such a bore. You were both unabashed activists. Your track records were already impressive. You put your money where your mouths were, relying on bikes and public transit to remind us of the environment, defying ridicule in so doing. You stood up for the homeless when few city council members did; you even convinced Mel Lastman not to jail them, at a time when right-wing poor-bashing was becoming disturbingly fashionable. You stood up against violence against women in the age of the sexist backlash, throwing your support behind the White Ribbon Campaign after the Montréal Massacre. More than 60 countries are now members of that anti-violence campaign, thanks to your efforts. You made a real difference in the lives of your Toronto constituents on every level, and you were always on the good side of the issues.
And that was only on the local level. A few years later, I was overjoyed to watch you and Olivia make the jump to the federal level, side by side, as members of Parliament in adjoining ridings. You were sorely missed at Toronto City Hall, but Toronto’s loss was Ottawa’s gain, and that of your federal ridings.
And the NDP gained, too. Under you, they went from strength to strength. This year they scored their best election returns ever. You more than doubled the seat count and helped Québec consolidate its place in the federal fold. Even those who doubted you and disliked your politics had to admit that you had pulled a real coup.
And you did this while you were gravely ill. And you did it with such energy and verve that no one suspected until it was too late.
Now you are gone, and you left an amazing letter to us all. Written two days ago, I’m told. Even on your deathbed, your energy and optimism never flagged. The same personality that impressed me at City Hall all those years ago remained intact to the end. Even death could not bring you down. That’s a rare talent, you know, pulling such a coup in the teeth of death!
Writing this letter to you now, I wonder if you are really gone. You are still certainly present to me, and I suspect I’m not the only one who will feel your presence in spite of your absence.
Tonight there is a candle in my window, my porch light is on, and I’m wearing orange. It’s the least I could do for a true leader, one I like so much and will remember so well. There will be more, later — in the shape of the activism that you yourself lived to the end.
You never gave up on us, Jack. May we never give up on YOU.