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MP Olivia Chow follows the casket of late husband Jack Layton in Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
MP Olivia Chow follows the casket of late husband Jack Layton in Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Jane Taber

Layton and Chow: A love story and political alliance come to an end Add to ...

Briefly, and for the last time, Olivia Chow shared a moment with her husband in the Commons foyer.

Inseparable for nearly 25 years in politics and everything else in life, this time Ms. Chow stood alone. She gently rested her hand on her husband’s flag-draped casket and her face crumpled in sadness.

It was just for a moment. Then, the doors opened and the formalities of Jack Layton’s state funeral began.

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For two days, the NDP Leader’s body will lie in state on Parliament Hill before his coffin is returned to Toronto, where it will lie all day Friday and Saturday morning at Toronto City Hall. His state funeral is scheduled for that afternoon at Roy Thomson Hall.

This is the way Ms. Chow and her husband wanted it: public and a “celebration of life.”

It was a composed Ms. Chow who hugged tearful MPs and political staffers, shook hands with a long line of dignitaries and diplomats, and was offered condolences by another political wife, a teary-eyed Laureen Harper.

It was an appreciative Ms. Chow, who along with Mr. Layton’s children, Michael and Sarah, went out to talk to people lined up on Parliament Hill waiting to pay their respects.

She is said to be struck by the number of people who have been touched by Mr. Layton’s death.

Sad, devastated, but strong, is the way Layton aides have described Ms. Chow during this long, emotional week, which began when she helped shape the remarkable letter Mr. Layton issued to Canadians, and will end with his state funeral.

“She is remarkable. She is just so strong,” said Anne McGrath, Mr. Layton’s long-time chief of staff. “She was standing there by the coffin for hours and hours talking to people, MPs, ambassadors, staff and ... she just really has been holding it together.”

Holding it together to ensure she gets this right.

“She feels a responsibility and a desire to do this in a way that will fit the occasion, the sombreness, but also the joyfulness of the life they had together,” Ms. McGrath said.

Theirs was a true love story and an equal working partnership. (Mr. Layton once proudly pointed out to a reporter during an interview in his office the 12 different pictures of his wife that he had distributed among his side tables, desk and bookshelves.)

A passion for social democratic politics fuelled their love affair. They were married in 1988, and were involved in municipal politics before taking on Ottawa.

Ms. Chow is not only a political wife but also a Toronto MP.

“They’ve always been side by side,” Ms. McGrath said. “They were a political couple.”

This summer, Ms. Chow was by her husband’s side constantly as he became more ill, juggling both the politics and the private side of his life.

“What I remember really well was I would go there to talk to him and she would be engaged in the political discussion that we were having at the same time as she was making tea, putting out food, giving medication, checking on his comfort levels ... dialling the phone,” said Ms. McGrath, who visited Mr. Layton every week during that time. “She was just multi-tasking in a way that was remarkable to watch because it was so seamless.”

Ms. McGrath described Ms. Chow as an organizer and a “doer.”

No surprise then that Ms. Chow has been involved in every aspect of every detail of the visitation, the lying in state, the funeral, the program and the attendance list.

Mr. Layton had wanted his funeral to further his political cause; it was not just to be about him. Ms. Chow is expected to speak either at the funeral or in the video tribute being prepared for Saturday.

“She wants to get it right,” Ms. McGrath said. “And she wants it to be a fitting memorial to Jack and his life.”

On Thursday, a 15-gun salute will honour Mr. Layton as his coffin is removed from the Parliament Buildings. Ms. Chow will be with him.

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