‘Dear Friends’: What went into writing Jack Layton’s final words

The inside story of Jack Layton’s final letter, and why his words still hold weight

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.

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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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