A Light Has Gone Out: Champion of Social Democracy Jack Layton is Dead

I was browsing facebook this morning when I noticed a friend had updated her status to “RIP Jack Layton”. My immediate reaction: What the fuck? Jack Layton can’t die. He’s Jack Layton. And then I googled news-ed it.

I hesitated to write about this because I really hoped it was one of those internet hoax things, and that Layton would pop his head out somewhere, tired from his battle with cancer, but still alive and well, fighting the good fight. But he hasn’t done any such thing, and even though I’m still in disbelief that I almost want to end this sentence with a question mark, I have to face the truth that Layton really is dead.

At the age of 61, Jack Layton died from cancer this Monday morning in his home.

Layton was the leader of the NDP, the Official Opposition party to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. On July 25, he took a temporary leave of absence to fight the cancer, so he could “fight for families in September”, when Parliament resumes.

It feels like a punch in the gut, especially for people hoping to see a new future for Canadian politics, one coloured in orange.

Layton led the NDP in 2011’s Federal election to a record breaking 103 seats in Parliament, making it the first time in the party’s history that the NDP is the Official Opposition.

It was hard to not be moved on election day, watching a wave of orange NDP votes sweep the country.

Jack Layton did it. He rallied the country, gave hope to young voters, even got Quebec to eschew the Bloc. He made us feel like we had a voice. I had no idea Layton was that sick, but that’s characteristic of him. He was always a fighter, always ready to give everything he had to Canadians. He sacrificed himself for us.

Before he died he gave his partner Olivia Chow a letter he wrote to Canadians in the event of his death. It’s inspiring and well worth the read, possibly the epitome of what made Jack such a great leader.

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. Young people have been a great source of inspiration for me. I have met and talked with so many of you about your dreams, your frustrations, and your ideas for change. More and more, you are engaging in politics because you want to change things for the better. Many of you have placed your trust in our party. As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.

To young Canadians. He’s talking to me. Jack Layton was there for us, the students, the young poor people hopeful and terrified of a future that can sometimes seem so grim. I don’t even know what to say because it feels like such a personal loss, and then I remember that it’s everybody’s loss. The world is less without Jack Layton.

Jack Layton was a hero. The thing about heroes though, is that they never really die. We take whatever strength they gave to us and use it to live our lives as better, stronger people. He will be missed more than I can say.

a young jack layton

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. – Jack Layton

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Emily Choo started as an intern with Autostraddle when she was 18 years old. She's now 10 years older and lives in Toronto with her partner and cat. The defining moment of her career was when Riese said this about her: " I think Emily Choo is a very bright, 'poetically inclined' girl who pays attention to everything and knows almost everything (the point of stuff, how to read, how beautiful things feel, how scary things feel, etc.) but doesn't believe/accept/realize yet that she knows almost everything." She still doesn't believe she knows anything, so, thank you, Riese, for that.

Emily has written 100 articles for us.


  1. Emily, I want to thank you for the Jack Layton article. As a Canadian who lived in Toronto for more than ten years, I was and am still shocked over the new of his death. He is our prime minister in heart.

  2. Thank you for this, Emily.

    Jack Layton was to young Canadians in 2011 what Trudeau was to young Canadians in the ’60s, what Obama was for young Americans in the late ’00s, what Kate Middleton is for British kids, now–a symbol of those without a voice, a sign of change, of hope.

    I’ll be 25 in January, and up until this year, I had no interest whatsoever in politics. My dad’s been involved in politics (Conservative all the way, ick) since long before I was born, but I grew up totally indifferent to voting. It all seemed so boring, and who had the time to bother with learning about all of the different parties? But I could not help but be swept up by the buzz this spring surrounding this fiery little fellow from Quebec. I voted for the first time this year, proudly supporting the NDP. Reading up on Jack Layton, watching the NDPs crush the Bloc in Quebec (!), I felt that Canada was on the verge of a revolution, that we were slowly shedding our elitist, long-outdated, “old boys’ club” image, that the country was starting to pay attention to those it had not been listening to, and that Jack Layton was going to make a damn fine PM in a few years. Many of my students at work, as young as 9 and 10, suddenly became Layton-aholics, this year! I didn’t care about politics until my mid-20s, and these kids know about all of the party leaders and their platforms! What other political leader could have inspired such a young generation to care about politics? Jack Layton touched these kids in a way no one else could have.

    I’m seriously crying as I type this. Crying because Canada has lost a brilliant man to a vicious disease, but also for my country’s future. What will happen to the NDP, now? What will happen to the Canadians who were given hope, promised change through Jack Layton?

    RIP Mr. Layton.

    • Umm, as a british kid, can I just say that Kate Middleton is primarily a symbol for well maintained hair, rather than hope or change. Jack Layton however, seemed like a really brilliant man.

      • Fashion aside, I feel that Kate is at the very least a symbol of a more accessible, slightly less pretentious monarchy. A kid with humble beginnings, she ended up a princess (or duchess, whatever). Hers is a sweet Cinderella story, but the point I was trying to get across is that both she and Layton stood for something different and exciting in their respective countries. Though not to the same extent, of course!

        • Uh, just because you couldn’t think of a British political icon comparable to Obama or Layton doesn’t mean you settle on Kate Middleton. Kind of insulting.

  3. My deepest condolences to the people of Canada. Mr. Layton sounds like an amazing person and a great leader. As an American, I sadly don’t know much about his relationship to progressives and queer folk, but it seems like he did much good during his life. I imagine you’re all feeling the same way I and the other Massachusetts liberals/queers felt when we lost Ted Kennedy.

  4. Thanks for the article, Emily.

    It’s a sad time in Canadian politics, for sure. I may not always have been a Layton supporter, but there is no denying his passion and enthusiasm. He had a lot of great ideas for the future of this country – and he was always my favorite in the debates. Hopefully the NDP can find someone who will keep the momentum going and continue with what he started.

  5. Thank you for this article, obviously heartfelt. I was just as shocked by his death…how could he be gone, when there’s so much left to do? He was a fine man, and he fought a hell of a fight, and caused so much change. Now it’s time for someone else to pick up where he left off. I hope that within that party, there is someone with as much strength, courage, belief and vision as Jack Layton.

  6. I was so heartbroken yesterday, when I found out about his passing.

    He was the first leader that caused me to actually be engaged with the election, and while I’ve been a fan of him for years now, this was the first election I voted in, because of how amazing and charismatic he was.

    I’m hoping that we will have more leaders like him.

  7. Thank you, Emily, for posting this.

    Jack Layton was a champion of women’s rights, gay rights, the list goes on. He was a voice for the politically disenfranchised, and believed in the future of Canada as a just country, one in which equality for all is paramount to the political process. He worked tirelessly as the leader of the NDP, and it is a horrible shame that he will not enjoy the success of the party when Parliament resumes.

    Although he announced his break from politics a month ago, his death was a shock to people everywhere, and is being mourned by people across the country. There were candlelight vigils across the country last night, from Montreal to Vancouver, and a number are being planned for the days to come as well.

    “There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause. But that cause is bigger than any one leader. Answer them by recommitting with energy and determination to our work. Remember our proud history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind.” -Jack Layton

    Canada will mourn, and then Canada will live Jack’s words.

  8. i am still devastated from hearing the news, i found out from facebook yesterday morning as well. i proudly support the NDP, and excited with the results of the last election i was looking forward to seeing layton’s progress in the next few years. his letter is so beautiful and inspirational. RIP.

  9. I was upset at the news yesterday – I had at least 10% of my FB friends pay respect to him, so the shock and profound loss is felt by a lot of young Canadians. I hope the NDP can continue to speak our voice, but it’s not going to be the same without Mr. Layton. He was the Party.

  10. thanks for writing this, Emily. i’m so sad about this, i’m on Day Two of crying at work while reading cbc articles.

  11. i’m so sad about his death and/but also terrified about what the conservatives will do with this strategically… they have a majority & the NDP is obviously now way more vulnerable. he was a hero. so much sadness here in BC, far from his stomping grounds in toronto. (and i found out from facebook too.)

    • yeah i feel like the next 4 years are going to be gloomy, and possibly even beyond that. the conservatives are the only party that don’t have an interim leader right now which is scary, someone hold me

  12. So heartbroken about this. He was possibly the best thing about Canadian politics. I hope the NDP can elect a successor with as much light as he had.

  13. I think I was more distraught about his death than some of the deaths of people I actually knew. I think I need to get my priorities straight.

  14. This is absolutely horrible. Aside from the fact that it’s always sad to lose someone to cancer like this, we really need all the progressive leaders we can get right now. Hopefully, many of the people he inspired so much will step up and carry on his legacy.

  15. I can’t believe he’s gone. He’s the best Prime Minister we never had. I met him and Olivia Chow at Toronto Pride ’06 and ’07. He’s really the only politician that I really believed and believed in. I can’t read his letter without crying. Oh, Jack. We miss you so much.

  16. Thanks, I was hoping you guys would write about this. I really hope that his death will help to further galvanize the left here. Right now though it just feels like the darkness of a horrid right wing government has just become darker.
    Jack Layton was really a friggin’ inspiration to the youth in this country. He was a real champion of LGBT causes and you know anyone who would go on national television and make marijuana cookies and sing ‘legalize it, legalize it’ is ok by me.

  17. Thank you for this article. Jack did so much for our community. I remember watching the vote over same-sex marriage live, and seeing him stand up for us. I will never forget it as long as I live. His face at Toronto Pride every year brings me to tears with such joy because no other politician truly cares about us like he does/did. I feel so vulnerable right now because I fear there will be no one left to stand up for our community. It’s a selfish reason to want someone back, but he was so much more that an advocate for the LGBT community. That’s what makes it so much harder. He did so much, for so many disadvantaged groups. He brought real social change to Canada. I can’t imagine him not being here. I lost my hero.

  18. Ah shit. I’m an aussie, and I’ve actually shed some tears seeing this. He was a good man – which seems more than one can say for most politicians.

  19. 10 years ago I was part of the Toronto Right to Dance movement (really a bunch of ravers trying to save the party). Olivia gave us her support and her staff helped us understand how to lobby city council. I remember after we won the big vote reversal at City Hall, she and Jack opened their house and threw a BBQ for many of the main organizers – lots of kids in big pants.

    It is remarkable to read how many other people have similar stories of personal interaction with Jack (and Olivia). He was such an inspiring man and I can’t believe he is gone so soon. I am heading out to Nathan Phillips now to pay my respects.

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