Jack Layton, leader of the Canadian NDP party, died this week, and Canadians expressed their reactions on social networks.
Jack Layton, born July 28th 1950, was the leader of the New Democratic Party and a major political figure in Canada for the last decade. He rose to prominence in Toronto politics and became leader of the NDP in 2003. Under his leadership, the NDP – which had seen significant declines in support since the 1980’s – saw significant growth. In the 2008 election, the NDP elected 37 MPs, six seat short of the party’s previous high, and in the 2011 election, Jack Layton led the NDP to a total of 103 seats, enough to form the Official Opposition. It was a significant win for the NDP and made Layton the most successful leader (electorally) in the NDP’s history.
However, following the 2011 federal election, Layton announced he was taking a temporary leave from his position. He had announced in February that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, a disease he had beat seventeen year earlier. In July, he said that he hoped to return to the NDP for September. Unfortunately, Layton could not beat an undisclosed form of cancer and died in his Toronto home on August 22, 2011.
Known for being a classy, smart, and dedicated leader, Canadians took to social media to express their condolences and sadness. By midday on Monday August 22nd, 10, 000 people had tweeted about Layton, according to digital public affairs analyst Mark Bevis. It is more tweets than were sent during a single day of the last Canadian federal election. In a Canadian Press article, Blevis notes: “This is one of those stories that tweets up the entire nation because it’s apolitical right now.”
Canadian celebrities and key figures such as Ellen Page and the Governor General went to Twitter to send their condolences. Social media was also used to organize public tributes and gatherings, including a walk on Parliament Hill, a Toronto rally, and a vigil in Vancouver.
In the Canadian Press article, Christopher Schneider, an assistant profession of sociology at the University of British Columbia discusses the important role social media can play to help people process the loss: “Part of the mourning process is collective — this is why we have funerals, it is why we have wakes. But often times it ends at those two ceremonies. When we look online, the mourning can continue and it can continue across these vast spaces.”
Layton, sensing the end of his life, wrote a letter to the Canadian people. It is both articulate, positive, and graceful, all the things we hope our politicians and leader will be. To young Canadians, he said: “I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs to be today.”
The final words of his letter quickly became the Facebook status of many Canadians – a social media epitaph of sorts:
“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.”