More than 100 people gathered at Harbourside Park in St. John’s early Wednesday evening to honour the legacy of a federal political leader who died one year ago.
Jack Layton, only months removed from a historic federal election that saw the New Democratic Party gain more seats in Ottawa than ever before, died on Aug. 22, 2011, at the age of 61. He had previously been diagnosed with cancer.
Last year’s federal election gave the NDP two Members of Parliament in Newfoundland and Labrador for the first time — Jack Harris and Ryan Cleary. The party also experienced record-setting success provincially, winning five seats in the 2011 provincial election.
Many attributed those victories, provincially and federally, to Layton, who made his last visit to Newfoundland and Labrador during the April 2011 federal campaign.
“At that particular time, when Jack was on the stage and gave that proverbial shake of the cane and, I guess, (he was) probably telling everyone at the same time, ‘I may be sick, but don’t worry, I’ve still got strength, and I’m still going to carry on,’” said St. John’s East MHA George Murphy, who said he considered Layton to be a mentor, friend, and role model.
Of Wednesday’s speakers, St. John’s East MP Jack Harris likely knew Layton the best. Commenting on the choir that sang throughout the event, Harris said the presence of music was fitting given Layton’s fondness for breaking into song himself at NDP events.
Harris said Layton’s death was particularly hard on the MPs who remained in Ottawa and were tasked with carrying on his legacy.
“We’ve had a difficult time since then as a party. As a caucus, we’ve been in mourning.”
But he said the NDP is now looking to the future. He said carrying on his legacy is not something that should be left only to politicians in Ottawa, but also for the public.
“He showed us that there’s a reason for optimism — to face the future, and each day of it, as an opportunity to take another step toward the world that we want to create. The world where we can ensure that everyone can have a meaningful place, and a job with dignity.”
Harris said Layton exhibited courage and determination during the final months of his life in continuing to fight for what he believed in.
“It’s our job to continue this work, to bring this courage and conviction and determination to what we do. We can all play a role in this.”
A picture of Layton was draped along the side of a van behind the area where the choir sang and the speakers shared their words. Messages were scrawled along the concrete steps of the park that said, “Thank You Jack,” and “We Miss You,” amongst other messages.
Catherine Drodge was one of those who appeared to miss Layton. She said she believed in Layton’s message. Drodge spoke with him at the rally in St. John’s last April.
“In the short conversation we had, I learned so much, and it gave me so much hope,” she said.
Drodge, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities, said she felt emotional as she heard the choir sing prior to speaking.
“It’s hard not to, because in Jack world, Jack’s message was about inclusion, not exclusion,” she said, with her voice breaking.
Wednesday’s event was called “Dear Jack, A Celebration of Love, Hope, and Optimism,” drawing on a quote from a letter Layton composed that was released publicly shortly after his death.
“My friends, love is better than anger,” he wrote towards the conclusion of the letter. “Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”