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opposition leader

NDP Leader Jack Layton has died after a battle with cancer. Layton speaks to supporters at the NDP headquarters in Toronto, Ont., on Monday, May 2, 2011.Chris Young

Jack Layton wrote two letters to Canadians in his dying days – one dealt with his vision for the country in the event his cancer would force him to step down.

The other was much more grim. It outlined his thoughts for his party, for his MPs, young Canadians and Quebeckers, if he were to die.

"I think he never gave up hope, but he was also realistic," said Anne McGrath, his long-time chief of staff.

It was the second letter that Mr. Layton's wife, Olivia Chow, and his staff released on Monday. Just a few hours earlier – with Ms. Chow, his brother Robert, his mother-in-law and his two children by his side – the NDP leader had died.

He was 61.

The response to his death was immediate and overwhelming. Flowers were placed around the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill and at his Toronto office. The flag on the Peace Tower was lowered to half-mast, as were flags on federal buildings in his riding.

An outpouring of tributes and remembrances from both political foes and friends appeared on social media. Governor-General David Johnston Tweeted his condolences.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, meanwhile, said Canadians will remember Mr. Layton for the "force of his personality and his dedication to public life."

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said he "was always struck by his energy and his resiliency and the fact that ... for him it was never personal. He never dished it out personally and he didn't take things personally."

During the final weekend of his life, Mr. Layton remained the consummate and savvy politician, orchestrating the last details of his political life – including his funeral and setting down the direction he wanted his party to go in choosing his successor.

"I recommend the party hold a leadership convention as early as possible in the New Year, on approximately the same timelines as in 2003 [the leadership he won]...," he wrote.

He recommended that Nycole Turmel, the rookie MP from West Quebec whom he had suggested for interim leader when he was sidelined by a second cancer diagnosis, remain in the job until his a new leader is chosen.

Ms. Turmel has attracted controversy over her past membership in the separatist Bloc Québécois.

He gave his approval to the letter on Saturday evening, after meeting for four hours at his home with his two senior aides, Ms. McGrath and party president Brian Topp.

Ms. Chow was with them as well. Family members streamed in and out of the house.

Dressed, sitting up in a chair, his mind sharp and alert, Mr. Layton dealt with difficult options for the future – a future that had looked so bright on May 2 when the NDP broke through in the election. For the first time in its history, it was the Official Opposition, and Mr. Layton was prime-minister-in-waiting.

"What happens if I step down?" he wanted to know, according to Ms. McGrath. "What happens if I don't come back at all?" he asked. Then, the most difficult scenario: "What happens if I die?"

"These are some of the options and we talked them through," Ms. McGrath said, recalling that last conversation.

He pulled no punches.

"It was very tough," she recalled. At one point when they were talking about his health, Ms. Chow asked: "How blunt can we be here?"

Mr. Layton replied: "I want you to be very blunt."

"He was so clear," Ms. McGrath said of his mental state. "He was challenging us, which is what I loved about him."

Ms. McGrath would say to him: "Here's what we are thinking." And he would reply: "Well, walk me through your thinking."

If his letter was to be his last opportunity to address Canadians directly, he wanted it to be meaningful.

"We talked it through. We went back and forth on it," said Ms. McGrath. "We made changes throughout the day. He definitely wanted to say something to people with cancer. He definitely wanted to talk to young people."

To young Canadians he offered this: "Hope and optimism have defined my political career. ... 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. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today."

To Canadians with cancer, Mr. Layton wrote this: "Please don't be discouraged that my journey hasn't gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope. ... 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."

It was only a month ago that he found out he had another form of cancer. It was not a recurrence of the prostate cancer with which he was diagnosed in late 2009; he never revealed what it was.

Instead, he focused on the party's future.

"The day we got the results about this new cancer ... I talked to him four times that day," recalled Ms. McGrath, who began working with Mr. Layton in 2002 and became his chief of staff in 2008.

She met with him once a week throughout the summer and talked to him by phone at least once a day.

The new diagnosis was not the main subject of their conversation. Remarkably, she said, they spoke about the "need for fundraising ... having targets to build membership ... and he talked about the importance of continuing on."

Ms. McGrath recalls that after the press conference in which he announced he was stepping down temporarily, they sat together in the holding room and Mr. Layton said to her: "I am going to pull my medical team together and challenge them to come up with a plan."

"That is so Jack," Ms. McGrath said.