Remembering Jack Layton

On an unseasonably warm February night in 2009, Jack Layton was the main attraction on the University of New Brunswick campus.

He had come to the Wu Centre to talk about the economy and, at times, his speech invigorated the packed auditorium. Whenever he mentioned a move by the governing Conservatives, several people would stand up and yell, “Shame!”

The always energetic leader took audience questions during his talk and stayed long after to personally meet and take pictures with everyone, not leaving until the once full Wu Centre lobby was almost empty.

The Canadian Cancer Society says 205 Canadians die of cancer each day. On Monday, like many other average Canadians before him, the leader of Canada’s official Opposition lost his battle with cancer.

Only hours after his death, the news still hurts for Danie Pitre, former communications officer for the 2010 election.

The recent St. Thomas University graduate was inspired by Layton’s appearance at the Wu Centre more than two years ago. Prior to that night, Pitre had no desire to take on an NDP membership.

“It was from hearing Jack speak that kind of gave me the confidence to go forward with (joining the party),” Pitre said. “I had to stand by my convictions and he gave me that push in an indirect way.”

This past year, Pitre became more involved with the party. Her father, Darryl, was a candidate in Fundy-Royal in the last federal election.

During the campaign, Layton made a stop at a rally in Saint John, drawing what Pitre estimated between 300 and 400 people.

“It was just the most amazing thing to see,” she said. “It was just brilliant. I felt part of something like I never had before.

“At the time he looked quite good. It’s kind of painful to think of the rapid decline. It hurts. It really does hurt.”

Like Pitre, Kathleen Heaney was at the Saint John rally and got to shake Layton’s hand.

An avid supporter of women’s’ issues, Heaney talked to him about the status of women’s advisory councils around the country.

Layton told her not to worry and assured her his party would do something about her concerns. Later that evening, he announced the party’s platform on women’s issues and equality.

“I’d voted NDP in the past and I liked Jack before, but it was in that moment I really realized he’s the real deal. He’s the leader that brought me into the party,” said Heaney, who now serves as the New Brunswick NDP’s chief of staff.

To remember Layton, Heaney has organized a memorial Tuesday night at 6 p.m.

Called Raise a Glass to Jack, people can gather at the UNB Grad House at 676 Windsor St. to have a drink and celebrate Layton’s life.

“We can talk about our happiest memories of Jack and what we like most about him and what he brought to Canadians,” Heaney said. “He brought a lot of Canadians hope. He was a real fighter and fought right up until the end.”

Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside last saw Layton at a Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Halifax in June.

Layton spoke at this conference as the country’s Opposition leader, but attended many FCM conferences while serving on Toronto City Council, eventually rising to the role of FCM president.

“We recalled very fond memories of our experiences and times within the FCM,” Woodside said about the last time he saw Layton.

“He didn’t look near as bad as the last time that everyone saw him on television. I thought that having come through such a tough election campaign with what he already battled, he looked pretty good.”

During the years Woodside served with Layton as part of the FCM, he remembers his ability to light up a room where he always knew just about everyone.

“He was very passionate about politics, regardless of what level he was at,” Woodside said.

“(He was) a very caring and compassionate individual. The type of person (where) if he was at the meeting, you would know it.”

Condolences for Layton quickly flooded in on Twitter and Facebook after news of his death spread Monday, with politicians of all stripes recalling sharing memories.

“I think Canadians generally recognize we’ve lost a great guy. That greatness really transcends political association,” Woodside said.

STU political science professor Tom Bateman said he thinks everyone, friend or foe, appreciated that Layton was never vindictive or cynical.

“I think just about everyone would say this is a life cut short far too soon and he did a great deal for his political party and that it’s a real shame that he can no longer lead it.”

Because Layton never governed the country, Bateman said he had the freedom to speak in an impromptu way.

“I think that freedom and candour was attractive to lots of people who would not otherwise be interested in politics,” he said.

Layton was a leader until the end, writing a letter to Canadians to be passed on in the case of his death. In it, he offers guidance and a taste of the unending optimism he’ll likely be remembered for.

“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,” Layton wrote to the country’s youth.

The man who inspired Pitre is gone, but she will try to keep his memory alive through her own work within the party.

“The election might be done and with Jack’s leadership, we were able to have a breakthrough like none other before.

“The way we can honour Jack is to continue the hard work.”

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