Skip to Content

Ross-Fichtner, Brittany. “Performing Sidewalk Chalk Politics: A Memorial for Jack Layton in Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto.” In Diverse Spaces: Identity, Heritage and Community in Canadian Public Culture, edited by Susan Ashley, 208-30. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.


Ross-Fichtner’s article examines the ways in which people of Toronto used the medium of sidewalk chalk to playfully and temporarily transform Nathan Phillips Square into an outlet for alternative forms of political engagement through its encouragement of public participation, commemoration of Layton’s political legacy, disappearance into the realm of memory and promotion of a larger public dialogue. On August 22, 2011 Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square transformed into a multilingual, multicultural and political mosaic of chalk messages, following the death Canadian politician Jack Layton. Layton died from an undisclosed form of cancer only three and a half months after leading the New Democratic Party to its greatest victory in a Canadian federal election where it became the Official Opposition for the first time in Canadian history. Layton and the New Democratic Party presented a clear political alternative to Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Toronto’s Mayor Robert Ford. The chalk messages persisted to be written and re-written despite three heavy bouts of rain in the days prior to Layton’s funeral on August 27; by August 24, just two days after Layton’s death, the memorial had spread to the size of a hockey rink on the square. Many of the messages quoted Layton’s own words, expressed gratitude towards him and listed various political sentiments. It was the promise of its departure that partially led to the success of the chalk memorial. Ross-Fichtner dually argues that the chalk memorial functioned as performance and public art, where the political potential lay in its theatricality.

Kelsey Wood-Hrynkiw