Kids Corner

Our Best Friends

Leader, Mentor, Friend:
Jack Layton




The Honourable Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, passed away peacefully on Monday, August 22, in his home, surrounded by family and loved ones.

His death is a great loss for all Canadians, no matter where one's political allegiance lies.

In my five years of working for him as a Press Secretary, he was more than just a political leader for me - he was a mentor and a good friend. He insisted we call him Jack -  just Jack.

I know many Canadians feel sadness today, but especially the Sikh community, both in Canada and across the diaspora.

He took up many of the concerns and issues raised by Sikh-Canadians - from recognizing the importance of the “5 Ks” by introducing a motion in the House of Commons; standing with the community on calls for justice in India on the 1984 pogroms; demanding answers as to why divisive and controversial people like Kamal Nath were allowed into Canada; calling on the Government of India to reconsider the death penalty against Prof. Devinderpal Singh Bhullar; and generally fighting to end the racism and discrimination faced by the community.

He was our voice in Parliament and an activist who stood with us, shoulder-to-shouder, on the ground.

On one of the first occasions I was working for him in Toronto for an event, he suddenly decided to hold a press conference on the outrageous and ballooning gas prices. I was taken aback by the unexpected issue thrust on my plate - I was a novice then, and new to the vagaries of my job - because I had yet to gain experience pitching stories to the media.

No problem, said Jack.

He sat me down at his kitchen table, gave me a telephone and a list of local media outlets and told me to call them and sell the story. Now I was double-stunned - I had to sit in front of the leader and urge the media to show up at an impromptu press conference! 

Maybe I was lucky or maybe it was a slow news day, but that presser was a success with a great media turnout. At the end of the day, Jack gave me a high-five and congratulated me on the "good work". I learned a valuable lesson that day: don’t undermine yourself when others believe in you.

The very first press conference I had the opportunity to organize for Jack was in 2007, when the NDP called on the federal government to apologize for the Komagata Maru tragedy. He was appalled to learn of this dark historical episode and was committed to pressing for an official apology in the House of Commons.

Last year, the World Sikh Organization presented him with a Kirpan as a sign of thanks and in appreciation of his consistent, continued commitment to justice and fairness for all Canadians. He was very moved when I explained the significance of the Kirpan to him.

Jack was fearless. He was courageous. He had leadership and vision. I would joke and tell him that he’s really a Sikh inside because of his social justice work, and he would smile. Whenever I would meet with him, he greeted me with a “Sat Sri Akal” and his “Waheguru Ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji ki Fateh” was always impeccable and perfect.

I had the privilege of accompanying him to the annual Nagar Kirtans in Toronto, Vancouver and Surrey.  He was quite taken by the generosity of the community -  from the warm welcome he would receive, to the heaps of delicious food the sangat would serve at the various langar stalls.

The most recent one we attended was this past April in Toronto - we were both astonished at the rock star reception he got as he walked through the crowds. I knew he was respected by the community but this outpouring of love really touched him.

I would draft his speech for the Nagar Kirtans and add one simple line at the end, something to the effect of “Aap sabh nu Vaisakhi di lakh lakh vadhaa-ee hovey ji” - [may you all have great joy during Vaisakhi] and he would demand I add more Punjabi - not only because he wanted to share his sincere wishes with the community, but he knew it would set him apart from the other politicians who only did it as a chore.

It would amuse me to see the positive reaction of those listening to his speech and I was delighted when members of the Punjabi media would give me thumbs up for Jack’s performance and delivery.

He wasn’t just a champion for us - he was one for all Canadians. He played an instrumental role in convincing Prime Minister Stephen Harper to apologize on the floor of the House of Commons to the First Nations and Aboriginal communities for the residential schools and forcible removal and conversion of their children. He worked with local Tamil leaders in coordinating and pressuring the Government of Canada to intervene and work with the United Nations for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Sri Lanka. 

His political goals included dignity for seniors, lifting people out of poverty, ending homelessness, ensuring Canadians had access to doctors and proper medical care - he was a true fighter and it’s hard to believe that something like cancer would ultimately beat him.

I’ve had the honour to travel across the country with him and I was always amazed at how down-to-earth and friendly he was with everyone. I was often questioned by people, “What do you do for Jack Layton?” and I would state “Oh, I’m just a Press Secretary”. He once overheard and said: “No, Rupinder, you’re not just a Press Secretary - you’re my colleague.” 

I’m really proud that I had the opportunity to be a part of his team. Under his leadership, we worked hard to go from fourth-party status, to becoming the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, with a historic number of NDP MPs representing the entire country. I remember when people used to laugh and say that the NDP would never amount to anything significant, and Jack would always say, “Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.” That’s another lesson he taught me and one I’ll keep close to my heart. 

In a farewell letter to Canadians, Jack concluded by saying: “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.”

He would sign-off his e-mails with a quote from Tommy Douglas: “Courage my friends, ‘tis never too late to build a better world.” 

Now we must carry on his fight to make Canada - and this world - a better place for everyone.
And that’s how I’ll remember my friend, Jack -  by carrying on his fight to build a better world.


August 23, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), August 23, 2011, 8:00 AM.

Rupinder ji, what a rich and touching tribute you have paid your friend and mentor. I am reminded of such a befitting tribute that I now share: "A Leader is best when people barely know that he exists. Not so good when people obey and acclaim him. Worst when they despise him. Fail to honour people, they fail to honour you. But, of a good leader who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say, we did this ourselves!" Jack Layton was such a leader.

2: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), August 23, 2011, 8:10 AM.

Obviously a rare breed in the pack of politicians around the world, including North America. And Rupinder, a good friend to people and a wonderful mentor to you as well. Yours is indeed a much appreciated tribute.

3: Harpreet Makkar (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), August 23, 2011, 11:16 AM.

During my short period of being in Canada, I had a chance to see and hear Jack during his election campaign in April/May this year. I instantly became his fan, impressed by his thoughts, vision, oratory and straight-from-the-heart views. Even during the pre-election televised debate between the leaders of all political parties, he simply stood out. None of the leaders had answers to his questions or could convincingly counter his views. I always used to tell my friends that he is going to be Canada's PM one day, knowing little that he wouldn't even be able to complete his term as the leader of the opposition. RIP, Jack! You surely will be missed by all Canadians, irrespective of their political allegiance, for times to come ...

4: Harman Singh (California, U.S.A.), August 23, 2011, 7:55 PM.

A fitting tribute for a wonderful human being!

5: Vikrant Singh (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), August 24, 2011, 1:40 AM.

He was a great guy and the NDP had tremendous potential with him at the helm. RIP, Jack.

6: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), August 25, 2011, 9:06 AM.

Rupinder: Thank you for sharing your 'Jack' with us. Your tribute speaks for the entire community. Everyone, please let Jack's family know how warmly he is being thought of, at:

7: Bhupinder Singh Liddar (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), August 25, 2011, 3:22 PM.

He enthusiastically accepted an invitation and made a passionate speech at the annual Vaisakhi reception on Parliament Hill in 2005. Got to know him when he first came to the Hill and always found him approachable and friendly.

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Jack Layton"

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