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Canada Finds Hope In Instantly Famous Last Words

New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton lies in state in the foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa, Ontario, on Wednesday.
Michel Comte
AFP/Getty Images
New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton lies in state in the foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa, Ontario, on Wednesday.

When Jack Layton, the head of Canada's New Democratic Party, campaigned last spring, he limped and leaned on a walking stick. He had been through cancer treatments and hip replacement surgery.

The stick and limp could have been seen as symbols of frailty. But Mr. Layton's vigor and good humor turned them into emblems of scrappiness and sincerity.

Mr. Layton's New Democrats won 103 seats in Parliament and became Canada's official opposition party for the first time in that party's history.

Jack Layton thought he had beaten cancer. But he died this week, at the age of 61. There will be a state funeral in Toronto for him today, and the mourning in Canada crosses all party lines.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, "Jack Layton will be remembered for the force of his personality and dedication to public life."

Jack Layton was a born politician. His grandfather was a Cabinet minister in Quebec's Union Nationale government, and his father was energy minister in Brian Mulroney's Conservative government.

Jack Layton joined the liberal New Democratic Party, and lost several elections — for Parliament, and mayor of Toronto—before winning his first seat in the House of Commons in 2004.

He married Olivia Chow, a Toronto school official, who is also now a member of Parliament, and they spent their first Christmas Eve together drafting a policy on school nutrition.

Mr. Layton was said he despaired meeting people who thought his name was "But Jack Layton ..." because he was so often quoted only about what he opposed.

"I realized I was in the process of being typecast," he told the Toronto Starin 2003. "I decided, 'We're going to switch from opposition to proposition.'"

He brought the New Democrats to their biggest victory in history in May. But by July, Jack Layton's cancer returned. Two days before he died, he wrote a letter that his family released this week. It is graceful, blunt and personal.

"Unfortunately my treatment has not worked out," he writes, but tells others afflicted with cancer, "please don't be discouraged that my own journey hasn't gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better. ... My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer."

And then, a man who gave his life to politics closes with what amounts to a personal credo:

"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.

"All my very best,

"Jack Layton."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.