A black cloud hung over the orange camp as news broke that Jack Layton, the plucky federal NDP leader and career politician who committed to promoting a platform of social justice, died Monday from cancer. He was 61.
Alex Atamanenko, the NDP MP for the Southern Interior, said he was awoken at 6 a.m. Monday by party officials reporting the death of the popular politician.
“When you have friends who have cancer, you see people survive cancer and you always hope they’ll be one of those. In the back of your mind, you always understand that may not happen,” he said. “I was really hopeful, as were many people, that Jack had basically got this other cancer under control so he could do the same thing. Obviously it didn’t happen.”
The third-term MP said he had many chances to interact with the Opposition leader, from whom he learned the art of building consensus.
“He tried to work closely with the prime minister, with opposition leaders. He would come into our meeting and say, ‘I suggested this to the prime minister and he didn’t accept it.” But he’d keep trying,” Atamanenko said, recalling how Layton’s work with the Prime Minister’s Office persuaded Stephen Harper to offer an official apology to Canada’s
First Nations in Parliament.
“He was a really good leader. I’m just really saddened by the fact he won’t have a chance to lead his country, to be honest with you.”
Julia Pope, president of the Penticton NDP Constituency Association, said she met the federal leader at the provincial convention in 2009. She was struck not only by “his tremendous spirit,” but how accessible his humanity was despite his elevated role.
“There was a playful spark that was just infectious and wonderful to encounter,” she said. “You could feel this wasn’t just a politician, but a truly inquisitive mind that was as energized by his encounter with people and with Canada as Canada was by its encounter with Jack.
“There was definitely a reciprocity and recycling of energy between Jack and the people he encountered.”
Dan Albas, Conservative MP for Okanagan-Coquihalla, said “we’ve lost a great Canadian.
“My hopes and prayers are with the family right now through this very tough time,” he said.
In his first term, Albas said he met Layton only briefly, but found his figure cast a long shadow over federal politics: Many local voters told him they liked his positivity.
“People want their politics performed in a way that is meaningful to them,” he said. “I think Jack emphasized that, and he also contributed to the 41st Parliament just by setting the tone in that he asked for a more civil debate.
“That’s something I’ve pledged to do, and so I think he’s had a good effect on all of us. I think the body politic is lesser without him.”
Albas said he would take any condolence cards or notes dropped off by local residents at his Main Street constituency office and deliver them to Ottawa.
The prime minister wrote in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” by the news, and wished Layton’s wife and fellow MP Olivia Chow (Trinity-Spadina) condolences.
“On behalf of all Canadians, I salute Jack’s contribution to public life, a contribution that will be sorely missed,” Harper wrote. “I know one thing: Jack gave his fight against cancer everything he had. Indeed, Jack never backed down from any fight.”
In a final letter to Canadians, Layton thanked citizens for the outpouring of support and urged them to remain positive in seeking equality and fairness.
“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.”
Those final lines of his letter went viral on Monday, as Canadians paid tribute to the political figure on Facebook and Twitter.
“It’s really struck a chord with everybody,” Pope said, after seeing the “deluge of grief and hope” on her Facebook page.
“It’s a funny mix that it’s evoked. I’ve never seen the death of a public figure like this evoke both extremities of feeling. … The same lines have been quoted over and over again, and it’s like a new national prayer. Those words have transformed the grief.”