‘I believe in you’

TORONTO (CUP) — Less than a month after announcing a break from federal politics to focus on cancer treatment, NDP leader Jack Layton has died at the age of 61.

Layton, who became leader of the Opposition this spring after the NDP won a party-best 103 seats in the House of Commons, died in the early hours of Aug. 22, according to a statement from his family.

“We deeply regret to inform you that The Honourable Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, passed away at 4:45 a.m. today, Monday, Aug. 22,” read the statement from his wife, NDP MP Olivia Chow, and children, Sarah and Michael Layton. “He passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by family and loved ones.”

On July 25, Layton announced that he was stepping back from leadership duties to focus on treatment for a new form of cancer. He said that he was expecting to return to the House in the fall.

Despite a prostate cancer diagnosis in early 2009 and a broken hip earlier this year, Layton campaigned relentlessly in the weeks leading up to the May 2 federal election and successfully led the NDP to their historic 103-seat showing.

NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan is one of the many rookies who ascended the Hill this year. The young Scarborough MP — also the party’s new post-secondary education critic — recalled first meeting Layton as a volunteer in the 2008 election.

“I remember when I met Jack; it was as if I was meeting an old friend,” she said.

“He was so easy to connect with, easy to have a conversation with … He was not the important MP that’s too busy or too big to talk to a new volunteer on the campaign. That’s the type of politician I wanted to see and that’s the type of politician I wanted to emulate.”

Early Monday afternoon, a letter from Layton and dated Aug. 20 was released. Alongside paragraphs addressed to his party, his caucus and all Canadians, Layton had dedicated an entire section to Canadian youth.

“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,” he wrote.

“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,” the letter continued. “You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.”

To Sitsabaiesan, Layton’s words highlighted perfectly his commitment to young people.

“When he was doing talks across the country, he would talk about the youth he had running on his team and was very excited about the change and being part of the dreams of so many of us. He was a great source of inspiration,” she said.

“He’d say that we, the youth, were an inspiration for him, but he probably doesn’t realize how much of an inspiration he was — or he is — for us.”

Layton ensured that inspiration would last by concluding his final message with profound words dedicated to all Canadians.

“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.”