Canadians remember Jack Layton, one year after his death

TORONTO, Ont. – The one-year anniversary of Jack Layton’s death was marked, Wednesday, in many ways across the country.

Layton passed away in the early morning hours of August 22, 2011, after battling cancer, leaving Canadians with a heartfelt letter written only days before his death.

Family, friends and supporters held a giant memorial for him all day Wednesday, which included a farmer’s market, video tribute, photographs and evening performances. The music, words and images filled Nathan Phillips Square with Jack’s final words of love, peace and optimism just as it did a year earlier.

His family spread some of his ashes at a Toronto cemetery before going to City Hall for the memorial service at 6 p.m., which was hosted by family and the Broadbent Institute, and featured performers including Ron Sexsmith, City and Colour, and Raffi.

“I’ve experienced times that have tried me to the core, and in each of those times I’ve had the loving embraces of so many of you,” his widow Olivia Chow told the crowd.

“It’s at times very lonely, at times just unbearable, but at other times with the kids and the grandchildren it’s very joyous,” Chow said of the year since her husband’s passing. “It gives us more opportunity to come together.”

Following the evening show, she said her husband would have “loved it and loved the music, loved the people.”

Some people in attendance were moved to tears, including one woman who told 680News “the love that we have for Jack will never go away.”

Another woman disagreed, labelling it as a happy event.

“It’s a celebration of his life, and he wouldn’t want anyone to be sad,” she said. He’d want us to be loving, hopeful, optimistic, and we are because we know we have a strong future because of him.”

The evening wrapped up the exact same way his funeral did on August 27, 2011, with Lorraine Segato of Parachute Club singing the group’s 80s hit “Rise Up,” Layton’s favourite song.

Prior to the evening memorial, people began paying their tributes to the late NDP leader. Just like they did following his death, many chalk messages decorated the concrete at Nathan Phillips Square, including “we miss you Jack,” “you are still in our hearts,” “your spirit lives on” and “you made me believe youth can make a difference.” Several of the messages were written by people who also paid their respects last year.

“We need [youth] active in politics because we’re sure not doing a very good job of it, are we?”, said one man in attendance this year – and last.

“I came specifically for this. I think I owe him this. He was so good,” he added.

“I found it really helpful to come and be surrounded by like-minded people. The loss was just so tremendous and it still continues to be,” said Linda, who one year ago, stood in the same spot, writing her message on the concrete.

“He wasn’t your average cookie-cutter politician,” said Emily. “You didn’t walk up to him and see a kind of almost stiff politician, professional-like person. He was very human and I know it inspires me and a lot of my friends to go out there and know that politics aren’t something so foreign that we should be scared of. They’re tangible because of Jack.”

By mid-afternoon Wednesday, there was little room left on the concrete for new messages.

Street artist Chalkmaster Dave, who came in from Montreal, Que., drew a 5′ x 5′ chalk portrait of Layton, with the words “and we will change the world” below it. He said that Layton working only hours before his death changed his opinion about politics.

“Here’s a guy who inspired me to care about politics – at least a little bit,” he told 680News. “I never cared about politics, I hated it. I thought politicians were in it for themselves and didn’t give a crap about us. It’s just a money grab. And he changed my perspective on that.”

“Even on his deathbed, he was still fighting to get his personal message out there – us coming together and working together and all that. I was like ‘even with all your power and money meaning nothing to you now, you’re still fighting to put that message out there’. That showed me that people still care in politics.”

Many from the younger generation – some of whom were too young to vote during his campaigns – shared Chalkmaster Dave’s sentiments.

“Jack was able to reach out to young people unlike any other politician, and he sort of helped us not to be apathetic. In a way, we could relate to what he was saying,” a young woman told 680News.

“He high-fived me when I was 17 and I met him,” said Laura, now 23. “I still remember that.”

Even the YouTube sensation known as “Toronto Batman” was at Nathan Phillips Square, without his mask or costume on. He explained that not all heroes wear masks, and to him, Jack was a hero.

“It’s really encouraging and it’s very loving,” Olivia Chow commented on the crowd. “Love lives on and I think it touches people’s hearts.”

“It’s not just about Jack,” she added. “It’s the message that we can be a more loving society. Canadians are very generous. You can feel that generosity in spirit and they need a government that is more hopeful and more loving.”

The square at Toronto City Hall became a focal point of sharing of affection for Layton almost immediately after he died last year.

Meanwhile in Ottawa, more than 200 people turned Parliament Hill into a sea of orange flowers, as they wrote messages of love, hope and optimism written in orange paper. The words were displayed around a photo of a smiling Layton which was placed beside a bottle of Orange Crush, while the dominion carillioneur played John Lennon’s “Imagine”.

The people who were closest to him say the former NDP leader is still influencing people’s lives. MP and former Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel remembered Layton fondly.

“Jack Layton often reminded us ‘don’t let them tell you it can’t be done. We can do it.’ We can for sure for his memory. We can build a better, more caring Canada where no one is left behind,” she said.

“He challenged us. He said that we needed to propose ideas, that the ideas of optimism and hope – that we had to challenge each other,” said Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar, also a close friend of Layton.

“That’s what Jack was about – inspiring young people and talking about [his love for] politics, and talking about hope and optimism.”

A picnic on the Hill took place during the dinner hour.

Events were also held in other cities across Canada, including Thunder Bay, Brampton, Sudbury, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Montreal, Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Vancouver and Winnipeg.

Back in Toronto, Federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said along with family, friends and colleagues, the event was “a commemoration of someone extraordinary who brought a lot of positive messages to Canadian politics and to Canadians as a whole.”

Last year at Layton’s memorial service in Toronto, former NDP leader Alexa McDonough reflected on his life, saying Layton was popular because he affected people in a very ordinary way.

Supporters say those words ring true today, as the New Democrats hold onto the official Opposition status they won under Layton in the last federal election.

Layton was a Toronto councillor before moving into federal politics. 

Top Stories

Top Stories

Most Watched Today