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Olivia Chow clear-eyed about life without Jack Layton

MP Olivia Chow speaks to supporters during a tribute to Jack Layton at the NDP leadership convention at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in Toronto, Ont. Friday, March 23, 2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

It has been seven months since Olivia Chow lost the man who captured her heart at first sight 27 years ago. But the reminders of him are constant as Canadians continue to pay tribute to Jack Layton and the legacy he bestowed upon his New Democratic Party.

Just last week, Ms. Chow was invited to attend a St. Patrick's Day wake for Mr. Layton at the central library in Calgary, a city that is not known for its support of the NDP. More than 300 people turned out.

And this week, as the NDP chooses his successor, Mr. Layton's name is ubiquitous. It is written into the speeches of candidates, murmured during casual chat in the corridors, and praised Friday night at a massive tribute organized by the party.

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Ms. Chow shakes her head at the suggestion that it's almost as if her husband is still with us. "He is gone," she said firmly. "He's not there."

But it is true that his spirit is alive, she said during an interview outside the massive hall where the New Democrats will elect their new leader. And that will always be the case, Ms. Chow said, because the party still represents the things her husband championed.

"That spirit of generosity, of sharing what we have, of creating a better society, reaching deep inside us and finding goodness in people, that is what Jack and all the New Democrats want," she said. "So he is not here, nope, definitely not. He's not here in person. But that spirit, which is the spirit of New Democrats, is alive and well and kicking."

In the days immediately after Mr. Layton succumbed to cancer last August, Ms. Chow was praised for her stoicism. Amid the outpouring of grief, she appeared an island of calm.

Today, despite her loss, she is quick to laugh, quick to make fun of herself and her own perceived shortcomings – such as her French. She said she went through 18 different versions of what she planned to say during the farewell for her husband because her attempts to speak Canada's other official language were making people cringe.

But there still are some bad moments, Ms. Chow said. "Anybody who loses a mate has a very difficult time and, apparently, it doesn't get any better," she said.

Her own ability to cope has been made easier by the friends and colleagues of her husband who "have surrounded me with so much love," she said. "It's just really touching. So I am really blessed in many ways."

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Some might say there was an element of unfairness that Mr. Layton had such success in the spring election but did not live to enjoy it. But Ms. Chow does not see things that way.

"You can't bargain with life," she said. "What's unfair is that in Attawapiskat young kids have no place to play, no school, they are stuck in six portables, they don't have proper drinking water, no home, no house, no heat. That's unfair. Whereas life, birth, that's not questionable."

Eventually the outpouring of emotion from other Canadians will taper off, she said.

But "it's spring and it's a new beginning," Ms. Chow said. "And oh my gosh, it is so exciting to see all of these New Democrats, thousands of them!" If Mr. Layton were here, she said, his first word would be "'Wow.' He would be proud."

At the evening tribute, Mr. Layton's former staff announced that the party's Ottawa headquarters would be named after their departed leader.

Ms. Chow was called to the stage. "What a wonderful gift!" she told the cheering crowd. "I look at our great country and I see his legacy."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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