The inside story of Layton’s last letter

Aaron Wherry on why the words still hold weight

by Aaron Wherry

'Dear friends'

Darren Calabrese/CP

Marna Nightingale, a 42-year-old Ottawa housewife, freelance copy editor, part-time roller derby referee and card-carrying New Democrat, awoke on the morning of Aug. 22 last year to learn that Jack Layton had died. She was staying with a friend on Toronto’s east side and the pair read his final letter together and “sat and had a little cry.” Word began to spread, via email and Facebook, that people were going to gather at Nathan Phillips Square, the concrete expanse that stretches out in front of Toronto’s modernist, eye-shaped city hall, and the two decided to join the other mourners there. That’s when Nightingale went looking for chalk. She checked a dollar store, a drugstore and a local boutique, but couldn’t find any. Finally, she found some at a hardware store and bought two boxes—nearly 50 pieces in all.

She took the subway downtown and arrived at the square in the early afternoon. A sizable crowd had already gathered. She walked over to the ramp that runs along the east side of the square and there, on the concrete, she wrote in neat, capital letters: “Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.” Lastly, in big block letters she added, “And we will change the world.” She used up three pieces of orange chalk in the process.

Nightingale felt the attention of news cameras behind her as she committed the final paragraph of Jack Layton’s last letter to that wall. A CBC report would later credit her as the first person of many that afternoon to put chalk to concrete.

Two days before he passed away, Jack Layton sat in a chair in his living room, surrounded by his wife, Olivia Chow, who was seated on a bed set up for Layton, and two of his closest aides, Anne McGrath and Brian Topp, seated on the couch in front of him. McGrath first came to work for Layton in 2002, when he ran for the leadership of the NDP. She was now his chief of staff and was, he had told her, like a sister to him. Topp, meanwhile, had managed the NDP campaigns in 2006 and 2008 and had risen to party president. (In the leadership campaign that followed Layton’s death, Topp would receive the endorsement of Layton’s mother, Doris, who enthused that Topp and her late son could “almost finish each other’s sentences.”) About a month earlier, Layton, looking gaunt and sounding hoarse, had told the country he was dealing with a new cancer and, as a result, would be stepping away from the party leadership on an interim basis. The group had now gathered in Layton’s living room on this Saturday afternoon to finalize the letter that would be released should he not be able to return.

“He was confronting the reality that his therapy wasn’t going well,” says Topp. “He hadn’t given up all hope, but he wanted to talk about the ‘what-ifs.’ ” And if Layton was not fated to carry on, the moment demanded something more than a simple letter of resignation.“What I had no idea of was that it would have such a large impact on Canadians,” Topp says.

McGrath and Layton had discussed the idea of a final message in the lead-up to Layton’s July announcement, but the letter did not begin to take shape until early August, when Layton and Chow called McGrath from the hospital. “It’s not going well,” McGrath recalls the couple telling her. With that, the letter took on new urgency. Topp and McGrath, who had helped write speeches and letters for Layton in the past, exchanged drafts throughout August, while McGrath and Layton continued to discuss its contents.

When the group gathered all together on that final Saturday, they worked through the letter paragraph by paragraph. “He was still talking very fluently, but he was very, very ill, there’s no doubt about that,” Topp says. Layton seemed lively yet reflective. Several times he called for a break and asked to see a rewrite. That’s when Chow and Topp would go upstairs to a computer to type out a new draft. “He was very concerned about everybody there,” McGrath says. “I remember we’d be talking about something and he kept saying, ‘What do you think, dear?’ ‘What do you think, my love?’ And, ‘Is this all right for you, Anne?’ ”

The memorable last paragraph—the personal and political summation of a man for whom the personal and political were inseparable—first appeared in one of the early drafts of the letter: a paraphrase, Topp says, of the message Layton had delivered over the phone to the party’s MPs and federal council that July. In his last public appearance, Layton had sought to define himself and his mission in similar terms. “If I’ve tried to bring anything to federal politics, it’s the idea that hope and optimism should be at their heart,” he said. He looked forward to continuing to build a country of “our hopes, of our dreams, of our optimism, our determination, our values and our love,” he said. Though not a force regularly invoked in the context of modern politics, love was an idea Layton had spoken of in private meetings and conversations. Chow links it to his spiritual upbringing around the United Church. “He was taught by his parents to love life, to love people, love your neighbour as yourself,” she says. “It’s the very fundamental Christian background.” McGrath recalls a man whose optimism was nearly unrelenting. “He just always seemed to be so . . . it was infuriatingly positive sometimes, you know?”

To be sure, there was a dose of politics in those last five sentences, too. “To some extent, he’s making a political statement,” Topp says. “He’s drawing a contrast between what he thought social democracy was all about and what he thought of the sort of neo-conservatism of our day.” But there was also an attempt to transcend the day-to-day—“to appeal to people’s better angels, as Jack might put it.”

In helping Layton craft his final public testament, McGrath and Topp found something to distract themselves from the obvious. “It was kind of my crutch at the time,” Topp says. “It was completely unacceptable that he was so ill so suddenly.” That Saturday, McGrath says, was “a lot of work,” but at its conclusion there was “a feeling of accomplishment and a feeling that we got it right.”

“I think he also felt like he got to say some things that he wanted to say,” she adds. “In the letter, but also to Olivia, to Brian, to me.”

The last few times she saw Layton, McGrath wondered if she would see him again. That Saturday would be their final meeting. “I remember he was sitting in the chair and I went over to him and I kissed him and told him I loved him and he said he loved me,” she says. She stroked his face, and then left. “I don’t know if he knew that [his death] was going to be that quick. I didn’t know it was going to be that quick. But I also had a sense that it could be any time.”

Less than two days later, at 4:45 a.m. on Monday morning, Jack Layton passed away at home, surrounded by family and friends. Four hours later, the NDP released a statement from Chow announcing his death. After being retrieved from Layton and Chow’s computer in Toronto, Layton’s last letter—typed up on his MP letterhead and addressed “Dear friends”—was released to the public at just past noon.

Shortly after Nightingale had finished writing Layton’s last paragraph on the wall of that ramp in Nathan Phillips Square, her friend, Jennie Worden, stepped up and wrote, “We can take better care of each other.”

Others followed, picking up the extra pieces of chalk and scrawling their own messages. “When I was done I left the chalk on the ground by the ramp,” Nightingale wrote on her blog that night, “and things got sort of splendidly out of hand.” The entirety of the square would eventually be covered, and the ritual would spread to public spaces in Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa.

With rain in the forecast and fearing the messages would be lost, Chow rode her bicycle to Nathan Phillips Square on Wednesday evening to see the display for herself. “I think it was not just the letter,” she says of the public’s reaction to her husband’s passing. “Canadians are very genuine in their generosity and spirit. So it touched people because they see themselves also in some ways. It’s a connection to say, ‘Hey, we can do more to make the world a better place to be.’ ”

The rain did come, but whatever was washed away was rewritten or replaced soon after with new messages. By the weekend of Layton’s funeral, the square was once again covered. “I went with my wife on the day of the memorial,” Topp says, “and we just walked around and looked at all the writing that was there, much of which echoed those words that he had said in his living room just a few days before.” It was really only then that Topp was forced to confront what had happened.

The official cleanup of Nathan Phillips Square by city staff began on Aug. 31. But a year later, Layton’s words linger in other ways. They have been printed on T-shirts and posters. An elderly woman sent Chow a needlepoint of the entire letter. Raffi, the children’s entertainer, turned the last paragraph into a song. And with the assistance of Layton’s daughter, Sarah, the Broadbent Institute—the progressive initiative overseen by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent—has launched a “Dear Jack” campaign, encouraging Canadians to write about how Layton’s message inspired them.

“I think it showed that he had an important insight,” Topp says of the letter and the reaction it drew, “which is that there’s a hunger among Canadians to talk about things more important than the grubby stuff of the daily back-and-forth over who’s most corrupt in Parliament.” People are looking for a sense of higher purpose from their leaders, Topp says, and they saw that in Layton. “There’s a big message there for people who are left to carry on—that people are looking for more than the tactics of the moment and the small stuff. I think people are looking for more and they found it there.”




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The inside story of Layton’s last letter

  1. Enough of political canonization. Next St. Stephen Harper? Partisans are always biased.

    • You’re accusing Wherry of being a partisan Dipper? That’s absurd.

      I doubt Canadians will look back fondly on the days of Stephen Harper. Right off the bat, a super-majority was opposed to him getting unearned majority power. Opinion of him since then has only gotten worse.

      • We’ve heard that old story – more people voted against than for -that has been the case ever since the third party was invented in the thirties. I remember it was called the CCF and then morphed into the NDP That’s what the system is , buddie, not what the losers want to make it

        • Almost all developed countries have voting systems that ensure a majority of voters are represented in government. When a system doles out absolute power to a minority party a super-majority is against that is the literal opposite of democracy.

          BTW, one of the greatest opponents of First-Past-the-Post was Stephen Harper. He declared the system produced a “benign dictatorship.” He was elected leader of the Conservative party in 2004 using a complex system that incorporated Instant Runoff Voting (ranked ballot) and Proportional Representation.

          No political party thinks shoddy FPTP is good enough to elect its leader with. Therefore, it sure isn’t good enough to base our entire democracy on.

          • No, the proponents of proportional or whatever are those who don’t have a winning party. Notice that all developed countries who do thus also have fractured ed parties who have to wheel and deal with those other factions who have religious or other partisan bias.
            Although it doesn’t always work out that way, it is the duty of winning members to represent all people in their riding, political or non political. Most “proportional representationists” are just crying in their beer because they NEVER win. And I don’t think the fluke vote in Quebec means any more that the typical fickle vote in Quebec.

      • He wrote it, I read it Every “journalist:” is a potential political spinner.

  2. Black, and people who accuse others of bias are biased themselves. There is nothing wrong with bias. What is wrong with a bias is when it is used to demean others.

    • Holly spoke the truth. You would appear to be a noble unbiased partisan who of course knows the truth..Bias means prejudice in favour of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair. I have reasoned opinions against the NDP and some of what Harper does. I also have reasoned opinions why I can’t stand the liberals, Quebec or otherwise. That is hardly demeaning unless your skin is very thin. guess, generally speaking, a pox on all their houses. .

  3. Jack Layton until the last election was a failed politician who attracted little serious attention except when the news media needed a sound bite. Of course Layton like most used car salesmen loved the limelight so he was more than happy to accommodate. However, his policies were seldom scrutinized and he was seen as never standing a chance to attain govenment. The last election was a fluke. Quebecers were tired of the Bloc and could not support the Conservatives. So they voted NDP despite the fact they knew nothing of the candidates who turned out to be fill ins, kids, activists etc. etc. To suggest that this group has the ability to run the country is living in a fools’ paradise.

    • hollinim: You are right on.

    • For once I agree completely with hollinm.

  4. The fact that Layton chose to publicly script his death rather then quietly leave this Earth is testimony to his misguided opinion of his importance to Canada.

    • Withe you again.

    • And also those who would canonize him.

  5. So if I understand correctly St. Jack didn’t actually sign his letter.

  6. The bastards dead and he still trying to run the country.

    • That makes no sense whatsoever.

  7. NDP,and LIBERALS ear immigrant party’s, ever notice when there is an election its always what there going to do for the immigrants and never the Canadian people.We don’t need the Liberals and we sure as hell don’t need Jack Layton;s party or his input, your not here anymore so GO AWAY.

  8. I wonder how many of his beloved massage palour prostitutes will star in his movie. How quickly we all forgot that “Mr.” Layton circle of friends included local Parlour Prostitutes.
    If his family wanted to do something good for this city – Shut down the MASSAGE PALOURS!

    • Tell my seriously that supporters of the party that includes a Cabinet minister who impregnated a teenage babysitter have anything to say about other people’s morals.

  9. let he without sin cast the first stone…hey deenah what great things have you done that made a difference in you community…have you changes anyone’s life…helped a neibour or a stranger…but your so willing to say a few nasty words about a man who is no longer here… i wonder what people will say about you when you are gone…

  10. Canadians are very genuine in their generosity and spirit – you’d never know it from these comments.

  11. Leave it to the bigots…walk away.

  12. Just let it go trolls, no ones making you read this and you just make your side look bad – the guy died, let the people who liked and support him say nice things about him – it won’t do you any harm – you’ve got plenty of chances to oppose living politicians you oppose elsewhere

  13. In the year before Layton died I lost my brother,my mother-in-law and my uncle. The year after his death two of my lifelong friends passed away.I am sorry Mr.Layton died so early but do I mourn him,no

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