OTTAWA, Aug. 22 (Xinhua) -- Jack Layton, leader of Canada's largest opposition the New Democratic Party (NDP), died of cancer at the age of 61 early Monday at his home in Toronto.
Layton's wife Olivia Chow, a Chinese Canadian and Member of Parliament, said her husband passed away peacefully at 4:45 am at home surrounded by family and loved ones.
Layton announced on July 25 that he was stepping away from the job to concentrate on treatment of his unnamed cancer, the second following his prostate cancer found in late 2009.
At a hoarse voice, an emaciated Layton said then that he was confident he could come back to Parliament in the fall when it is in session.
On March 25, Layton's NDP joined other opposition parties to topple the ruling Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, making it the first one defeated for being in contempt of Parliament in Canada's history.
To the surprise of many observers, Layton, who campaigned with the support of a cane across the country, led his party to become unprecedentedly the largest opposition party in the May 2 federal election, the first time since NDP was founded in 1960.
The NDP success was Layton's greatest political achievement in his entire life -- first as an academic, then as a city councilor, then in federal politics.
Born in Montreal, Quebec on July 18, 1950, Layton had been riding a wave of popularity ahead of his death. It was his personal popularity that many credited for the NDP's "orange crush " in the 2011 federal election. He had even put the prime minister 's office in his sight for the next election.
Layton was survived by his second wife Olivia Chow, a son and a daughter of his first wife Sally Halford.
Canadian leaders issued statements on Monday, expressing condolences over Layton's death.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement saying he was saddened to hear the news.
Harper said that on behalf of all Canadians, he salutes Jack's contribution to public life, a contribution that will be sorely missed.
"I know one thing: Jack gave his fight against cancer everything he had," he said. "Indeed, Jack never backed down from any fight."
In his statement, David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, said Layton, as leader of the official opposition party, was held in great esteem by Canadians for his passionate dedication to the public good.
"Throughout his career as a community leader and politician, he constantly strived to bring people together in the common cause of building a better Canada, and he did so with so with great energy and commitment," he said.
Interim Liberal Party leader Bob Rae said the news took his breath away and that Layton's death is not just a loss for his party, but for all Canadians.
"It's a loss for the country because he was a political guy who believed strongly in politics and who had a lot of resilience and a lot of guts," Rae told local media.
In a signed letter to all Canadians, which was released after his death, Layton said that tens of thousands of Canadians have written to him in recent weeks to wish him well.
"I want to thank each and every one of you for your thoughtful, inspiring and often beautiful notes, cards and gifts," he said in the two-page letter. "Your spirit and love have lit up my home, my spirit, and my determination."
He also encouraged other cancer sufferers not to lose their hope.
"Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future. 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," he added.
"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," Layton concluded.
Layton's chief of staff, Anne McGrath, said Monday that Layton' s condition took a quick turn for the worse Sunday night.
Many Canadians sent flowers to Layton's constituency's office in Toronto, bidding farewell to him. The flag on the Peace Tower of Parliament building was lowered to half-mast.