As the labour movement on Monday celebrated the legacy of Jack Layton, Olivia Chow recalled the final weeks with her husband, as the cancer he had fought so hard finally took him.
Mr. Layton wrote Ms. Chow a note a week before he died, she told Peter Mansbridge in an interview broadcast Monday night on CBC, “to say that he has no fear because he knows that he can trust me. That his soul is his spirit. That when he passes on in his next journey that I will be with him.”
Mr. Layton was everywhere in memory on Monday, when thousands of labour supporters – many festooned in orange – paraded through Toronto with his face on banners, his words on buttons, and his name on T-shirts, to celebrate his public legacy and the continuing ties between unions and the NDP.
Ms. Chow, who during the interview ruled herself out of contention for the party’s leadership, partially opened a window onto her husband’s final weeks, while choosing to keep much of that time a private matter.
Mr. Layton was confident during the election campaign and even during the June sitting of Parliament that he was beating the cancer that afflicted him, she said. But then in July the “pain was intensifying,” particularly in the leg not affected by the fractured hip that had him walking with a cane.
“And then we did tests and more tests and more tests,” she related. When Mr. Layton announced in July that he was temporarily stepping down to fight a new cancer, Ms. Chow said he remained optimistic he would defeat it.
She would not disclose what the new cancer was, saying it might discourage others who needed to be confident that they would succeed in overcoming the disease that had claimed her husband’s life.
Only in the final days before he died did it become clear that time was quickly running out.
“He was quite sick the last few days,” Ms. Chow related. “...In those final hours, I knew he was in trouble.” Family and friends who had gone home because it was late at night quickly returned. “We were able to say goodbye.”
The poignant Labour Day celebrations come as the NDP’s leadership debates whether unions should continue to have a dedicated share of the votes to choose a new leader.
Amid fears of a possible growing rift, Interim Leader Nycole Turmel maintained that the party would remain united, whatever the decision, when the federal council rules on the matter Sept. 9.
“We'll set the rules and I'm sure we'll be fine at the end of the day,” she said in an interview.
Ontario Federation of Labour President Sid Ryan, who was at Monday's parade, acknowledged the federal tussle but said he doesn't see labour's “special relationship” with the NDP disappearing any time soon.
“There will be a debate about the nature of that relationship. And it's a fluid relationship, so it will probably change to some degree,” he said. “But will we ever see the day where there's no relationship between the labour movement and the party? I doubt it very much.”