After I went down a dark path with my last post, I figure that I should — really, we all should — brighten things up just a little bit with a clearing of another of my browser bookmarks. Just like the last post, I’m making note of a deceased person. This time, however, it will be more positive, as it involves someone who, unlike someone who preached the discrimination and shunning of others, generally lived a dignified and well respected life in politics, specifically Canadian politics.
The gentleman pictured to your right is The Honourable Jack Layton, and if that name sounds familiar to you, I did indeed mention him in passing in posts here and here. For most of his life, Mr. Layton was known as a respected activist, educator, and, yes, politician. Politics have been a big part of his family, in fact: His father and grandfather were in national and provincial politics; his great-granduncle was one of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation; and his widow, Olivia Chow, was like him a member of the Canadian House of Commons and a Toronto city councilor before that.
Mr. Layton also had an activist spirit during his life, perhaps getting it from his great grandfather, who was an advocate for the visually impaired. During his career as a politician and a community activist, Layton championed issues such as poverty, homelessness, public transportation, and the fights against AIDS and violence toward women. It’s issues such as those that led to his rise as a progressive politician and leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), one of Canada’s more prominent political parties. Using a combination of humor, devotion to progressive issues, and a highly positive and enthusiastic attitude, Layton would lead the New Democrats to their highest Canada-wide plateau in 2011, when the NDP became Her Majesty’s Official Opposition after parliamentary elections.
But Mr. Layton’s time as Leader of the Opposition would not last long. Just a couple of months after the election, he revealed that he would take leave to fight a recurrence of cancer (he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the year before). Though he aimed to stay positive in the fight and had hoped to return to Parliament that autumn, Mr. Layton died five years ago last month — August 22, 2011 — at the age of 61. His passing (and you can read his obituary here) was followed by a state funeral and a deep outpouring of grief and condolence wishes from Canadians from all walks of life and across the wide political spectrum.
Which leads me to the bookmark I wanted to share with you in this post. A couple of days before his death, Jack Layton wrote an open letter to his NDP party and the people of Canada in general, one he intended to have Olivia Chow release in case he could not continue as NDP leader. The original letter can be found at this link, and I highly recommend that you read the full letter for I couldn’t come close to capturing the hope and optimism included in it. But I will try to summarize it here just a little bit. Layton’s letter begins with acknowledgements of and gratitude for the well wishes that came his way, as well as his recommendations on how his successor for NDP leader should be chosen. But he did not dwell too much on politics after that. Here’s some of what he wrote:
“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… You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future.”
If there were any needed proof that Mr. Layton was one to encourage hope and optimism, it was in that segment of the letter. Don’t fret, he was saying, you can battle your illness.
“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.”
Good advice for anyone battling cancer or otherwise.
“To the members of my party: We’ve done remarkable things together in the past eight years… 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.”
Here he was never forgetting the political position he had at the time, how he got there, and that it was not about him. Truly remarkable in politics, and a total 180 from a certain selfish, thin-orange-skinned American candidate.
“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.”
Well, okay, there was still some politics in his letter. But also unlike a certain selfish, thin-orange-skinned American candidate, here was Jack Layton showing gratitude in those he worked with in Parliament and, in a later segment of the letter, voters throughout Canada, specifically his native Quebec, who supported his party in the previous spring’s election.
“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… There are great challenges before you… I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today.”
Here he was, ever the optimist even in the face of a serious illness and in the face of political arena. But he was showing optimism for future generations who will lead his party and Canada, uttering four of the most amazing words in the English language: I believe in you.
But Jack Layton didn’t leave his future optimism to the younger generations exclusively. In the final major section of his letter, he encouraged all Canadians to at least take a listen to his party’s opinions:
“Give them [the NDP and their platforms] 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.”
But perhaps the most memorable lines in Jack Layton’s letter were his closing lines. In them, he went well beyond politics and well beyond any cultural, social, economic, and geographic borders. They are beautiful, haunting, and above all else optimistic and forward looking. Here, presented in bold letters (added emphasis on my part in the hopes you’ll never forget them), were Jack Layton’s final words to the world. May we all be moved and inspired by them:
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,