08/22/2012 02:33 EDT | Updated 10/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Jack Layton Events: Canadians Gather To Remember Late NDP Leader


In the world of Canadian politics, he was known as the man who led his party to historic wins during the last federal election, but to the hundreds who gathered to honour him a year after he died, he was remembered simply as "Jack.''

Events were staged across Canada Wednesday to mark the anniversary of Jack Layton's death from cancer, which came just three months after the New Democrats had seized a triumphant electoral breakthrough and gained official Opposition party status — a first in the NDP's 50-year history.

Layton was 61.

The largest gathering to celebrate the late federal NDP leader took place in Toronto, where he had lived and served as a high-profile city councillor before moving to federal politics in 2003.

His wife, Toronto NDP MP Olivia Chow, said she was touched by the hundreds of people, including Canadian musicians, actors and politicians, who came out to celebrate her late husband's life.

"Jack would've loved this,'' she said to the cheering crowd, many of whom were wearing orange, the colour of the NDP. "Wow, he would have.''

Throughout the day, numerous chalk messages in Layton's memory — which spoke of hope and inspiration — were scrawled on the walls and the ground at Nathan Phillips Square, outside Toronto's city hall.

The messages were accompanied by bouquets of flowers, cards and cans of Orange Crush — the nickname given to the NDP's electoral sweep in Quebec in May 2011.

The scene was reminiscent of the outpouring of grief observed following Layton's death a year ago.

Chow added the words "alive in our hearts'' to the growing chalk tribute, which had spread across the square.

She said her husband believed in the goodness in people, social justice, and the ability to make the world a better place. Chow urged the crowd to carry on his causes.

"He said in his final letters to all of us, 'I believe in you,''' she said. "He called on all of us to pick up his torch and I know in my heart, that you have and you will.''

Layton's son, Toronto city councillor Mike Layton, said his father would've wanted people to stop grieving and start getting involved in his vision.

"The one thing that a celebration like this has is it can give you that support, and it sort of feels like there's other people in the same position, saying 'You know what, Jack left us, we're sad, but he left us with a vision and such a positive message of love, hope and optimism,' that it makes you feel not so alone,'' he said.

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath said the turnout at events honouring Jack Layton showed how much his message resonated with people.

"Jack was somebody who not only shook a person's hand, but pulled them in for a hug and bothered to have a conversation,'' she said. "He was really about connecting with people. And today that's what he would be doing if he was here.''

Gatherings to remember the popular politician ranged from picnics to pub nights across the country, from Smithers, B.C., to Charlottetown.

In Ottawa, tributes to Layton took on an unapologetically partisan tone as he was remembered on Parliament Hill.

His political causes — and their ongoing pursuit — were front and centre as a small crowd gathered under the shadow of the Peace Tower to memorialize the man who led his party to a historic highpoint.

"I miss him dearly, but he would be telling us all right now to roll up those sleeves, get to work and get moving with making a difference,'' NDP MP Paul Dewar told several dozen Layton admirers.

Dewar then listed some NDP priorities — a "little bit of homework,'' he called it — starting with restoring full health care coverage to refugee claimants.

"It's a shame that the Conservatives have cut it,'' Dewar said.

Though it comes as little surprise that a memorial to a political lifer such as Layton would engage in some bald partisanship, it nonetheless seemed incongruent with the tone of the gathering.

A young woman held a simple orange sign emblazoned with the word "Love,'' while the Dominion carillonneur played John Lennon's song "Imagine'' in the Peace Tower.

Lobbyist Robin MacLachlan, a former NDP staffer, said it was fitting because Layton's life was politics.

"For Jack there wasn't much of a difference: community was politics for Jack,'' MacLachlan told the Parliament Hill crowd.

Louis Lefebvre, 23, a self-described homeless person, said Layton had "an unyielding sense of right and wrong.''

"Today is about love, if that's the one message,'' said Lefebvre. "In his last paragraph of the letter he sent to Canadians on his deathbed, it's 'love each other.' That is the message.''

But love, in politics, has many faces.

"Jack loved teachers and teachers loved Jack,'' said another sign, endorsed by a prominent Ontario teacher's union that is involved in a fierce contract battle with the provincial Liberal government.

Later, Dewar was unapologetic about the partisan messaging at the memorial.

"The way to commemorate Jack is to get on with the work,'' said the Ottawa MP.

Some 15 months after the NDP won 103 seats in the House of Commons, a new poll suggested Canadians believe the party's work continues apace — notwithstanding its change of leadership.

Fifty-nine per cent of respondents to The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey said the NDP of today under leader Tom Mulcair is similar to when Layton led it.

Eight per cent said the party is very similar to when Layton led it, while 51 per cent said it was somewhat similar.

Twenty-two per cent of respondents said the NDP is not the same now.

The telephone poll of just over 1,000 Canadians was conducted Aug. 2-5 and is considered accurate to within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

— with files from Paola Loriggio in Toronto.

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