‘He had some remarkable things to say’

An oral history of Jack Layton’s last letter

Mitchel Raphael on the goodbyes to Jack Layton, both public and private

Photographs by Mitchel Raphael

For my piece in this week’s magazine, I spoke with Olivia Chow, Anne McGrath and Brian Topp about the writing of Jack Layton’s last letter, as well as Marna Nightingale and Jennie Worden, who were the first two people to put chalk to concrete at Nathan Phillips Square after Mr. Layton’s death.

Below, several excerpts from those conversations.

Brian Topp on the last Saturday with Jack Layton. “In what turned out to be our last meeting with Jack a few days before he passed away, Anne, Olivia Chow and I spent the better part of a day with him. He sat in his chair by the window of his living room; Anne and I on a couch in front of him; Olivia sat on his bed. We read a draft letter out to him. And then we talked it through, paragraph by paragraph. Three times or so, Jack called a break and asked to see a rewrite. Olivia and I went upstairs and did the redrafting—Olivia usually on the keyboard. We would then reassemble, read it all out loud again, and keep editing.

“He was ill. He was still quite lively. He was still talking very fluently, but he was very, very ill, there’s no doubt about that. He spent a lot of the time sitting in his chair by his window in his living room and then we were sitting on the sofa in front of him. He was quite lively and very reflective and quite engaged in this topic. He did us the favour of giving us an important thing to work on. It was kind of my crutch at the time. It was completely unacceptable that he was so ill so suddenly. He’d given us a big job to do, which was think about, politically, what happens if I pass away.  He asked Anne and I to join him, along with Olivia, to talk through the political side of his work. At a time when he was mostly focused on his family. He was very keen to spend a lot of time with his family, but he set aside a chunk of time to deal with us, to deal with what had been the absolute focus of his life for so long … He was confronting the reality that his therapy wasn’t doing well, although he hadn’t given up all hope, but he wanted to talk about what ifs. So that was what we were there to talk about. So you have in the letter the fruit of that conversation.”

Anne McGrath on the last Saturday. “I think there was a feeling of accomplishment and a feeling that we got it right. It was a lot of work and he was very conscious of wanting to get things right. I think he also felt like he got to say some things that he wanted to say. In the letter, but also to Olivia, to Brian, to me.”

Brian Topp on the letter. “I always thought it would be very important for him to do this. And that this was a very important moment. And it couldn’t just be a dry, technical moment. If these circumstances turned out to be true … He should say something important and he wanted to say something important. What I had no idea of was that it would have such a large impact on Canadians. I think it had a remarkable impact on Canadians and that’s because he had some remarkable things to say.”

Brian Topp on the final paragraph of the letter. “The final paragraph is a paraphrase of Jack’s final leader’s report to caucus and to federal council in July. It was an attempt to summarize what he brought to federal politics. There are some politics in that paragraph—Jack is contrasting his view of what modern social democracy is all about, compared to the “conservatism” (if that’s what it is) of our day. There is also an attempt to step away from what federal politics has often become (squabbles over edited memos, etc.) and to reach for a higher purpose—to appeal to people’s better angels, as Jack might put it. It was also an appeal to members and supporters of our party to remember that their cause is more important than one person—even if that person was Jack—and that it remains a compelling one.”

Marna Nightingale on the last paragraph. “If that’s not what a progressive is I don’t know what is. That’s what we are, that’s what we do. That’s why we get out of bed in the morning.”

Brian Topp on the public’s reaction. “I think it showed that he had an important insight, 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 … and that people were looking for a sense of higher purpose from their leaders and that they were seeing some of that in Jack … There’s a big message there for people who are left to carry on. That people in politics are looking for more than the tactics of the moment and the little, the small stuff. They are looking for the big things. … I think people are looking for more and they found it there.”

Marna Nightingale on Nathan Phillips Square. “I guess there’s that impulse that, you know, when you’re going to a funeral, you’re supposed to bring a casserole or something and I don’t know. I’ve been down to Nathan Phillips a million times and I suppose I was thinking of festivals and things when Nathan Phillips gets all chalked up and it just sort of, yeah, I need some chalk. I’m going to Nathan Phillips Square and I’m going to need some chalk. And I got two boxes. So I obviously at some point in my head, I thought well I’m going to use some and then I’m going to leave it for people. And that was really as far as I got logically … Looking at the things people wrote, it was partly memorial and it was partly a conversation. We needed to continue the conversation and I think we’re still doing that … People were mourning, but also I think, consciously or unconsciously, regrouping, even then … I was glad that I had found the thing that people needed. Because that’s kind of cool.”

Jennie Worden on Nathan Phillips Square. “For things to work, somebody has to do the first thing, but somebody also has to do the second thing so people can see it’s meant for everybody. So I did the second thing … When something happens that causes a profound, collective, emotion, people need an outlet. And that seemed like a really logical one, given the sort of activists types that were showing up … There was a real sense of hope and community and that if this many people felt strongly enough to take some time out of their day to write something on a pavement, maybe that is a force for change.”

Brian Topp on Nathan Phillips Square. “I went with my wife on the day of the memorial and we just walked around and looked at all the writing that was there, much of which echoed some of those words that he had said in his living room just a few days before. And it was quite extraordinary, to see so many people who had picked up on what he was saying and to write so movingly about it, it was quite overwhelming. I had the crutch of having things to be busy with and that was my moment to set that aside and be confronted for the first time that this was really happening. It was very moving.”

Olivia Chow on the public’s reaction. “I think it’s not just the letter … People responded to the feeling that … Canadians are very genuine in their generosity and spirit. So it touched people because they see themselves in some ways. It’s a connection to say, ‘Hey, we can do more to make the world a better place to be.’

“It’s not that different from love, hope and faith … So these values are universal. And why not connect with it? Or why do people get involved in politics? They want the world to be a better place to be. It doesn’t matter which party you belong to. Most people want to do good things for other people. And those are the reasons why we should be involved. Those are the values that are fundamental in people wanting to make their neighbourhood a better place to be for others. Or even make their friends and family happier. You don’t have to change the world, so to speak, in a grand scale. You can do it one tiny bit at a time. So it’s an act of kindness, small or large. So I think Canadians understood that, connected with it and thought they too can make a difference.”

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