In memory of the honourable Jack Layton

Celebration and sorrow found common ground on Aug. 27, as thousands gathered in Toronto to pay their final respects to the late Jack Layton at his state funeral. Layton’s casket had lain at City Hall for public viewing since Thursday after being transported from Parliament Hill.

Crowds gathered in Nathan Philips Square, easily doubling over the course of the day as the time drew closer to Layton’s procession to Roy Thomson Hall. Many left chalk messages, lining the concrete walls and sidewalks with words of sadness and calls to action.

“Your passing left many at a loss for words, but never at a loss for hope,” read one chalk inscription. Said another, “Jack Layton was the reason I started voting,” a testimony to his inclusivity and political pull.

Mary Daniel, a resident of Toronto, had written on the wall beside the outdoor vigil, “With you gone, we will have to speak up for ourselves and each other.”
Daniel commented, “I think a lot of people are feeling a sense of loss … and I think if there’s anything … that I’m taking from it, it’s that it’s time to stand up to the plate, as they say, and speak up for ourselves, for other people and then maybe we can all take on the project of being each other’s advocates.”

Known for his dedication to causes of social justice, such as speaking out against women’s violence and advocating for gay rights, Layton’s political fearlessness made him a powerful friend to many.

For Angela Calderone, the tragic loss would be felt deeply by both her and her family, long time habitants of Toronto and strong supporters of the New Democratic Party (NDP). However, consistent with the mood shared amongst many who attended the day’s proceedings, Calderone was “not worried” about
the party’s future.

With tears in her eyes, she said, “He was a visionary, and if anybody read that letter, Jack’s letter, you could see that even in his darkest moment, as he was dying and leaving Olivia [Chow] and his family, he thought for the greater good.”

A true tribute to the impact of Layton’s legacy was the range of people who lined the streets, stood in the hot sun at City Hall and waited in line for hours in hopes of receiving one of 800 wristbands granting access to the ceremony.
Rudolf Pedersen, who had joined the line with his “sweetheart” outside Roy Thomson Hall at 1 a.m., felt that attending the funeral was essential regardless of political affiliation. “Although I’ve never voted NDP, I really respect Jack Layton for the representation of the political system, his principles and the manner in which he conducted himself as a politician,” he explained.

“It is a testimony to the profession of being a politician,” former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien told The Cord. “And while the politicians are very often criticized all over, we now know in an occasion like that that there is a lot of respect for the people that devoted their lives to politics. “
The ceremony did not begin until after 2 p.m., with the procession beginning from City Hall one hour beforehand. As the casket, enveloped in a Canadian flag and carried by eight pallbearers in a manner of utmost respect, was brought outside the hall, the awaiting crowd broke into thunderous applause, and began a heartening chant of “thank you, Jack.”

Amusing anecdotes, tearful goodbyes, words of hope and live music joined to create a unique ceremony that took Canadians through a journey of emotions.
“It was sort of a combination between a funeral and a rock concert,” said attendee Gene Tishauer, aptly describing the proceedings. “I think Jack would have loved it.”

The ceremony included a variety of religions and traditions, despite Layton’s personal connection to the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. Former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis spoke, giving a call to action disguised as a eulogy. “We’re all shaken by grief, but I believe we’re slowly being steadied by a new resolve and I see that resolve emerge written in chalk and fresh determination in people’s faces,” Lewis began. “A resolve to honour Jack by bringing the politics of respect for all, respect for the Earth and respect for principle and generosity back to life.”

Equally touching were the stories and words shared by Layton’s children, Mike and Sarah. “The busiest man in the world could always make time for what mattered most,” commented Sarah Layton, describing her father’s devotion to spending time with family.

This was reinforced by the memories recalled by her brother, who told of a sailing trip he had taken with his father, only to find there was no wind. “‘You can wait for perfect conditions,’ he said, ‘or you can make the best of what you have now,’” said Mike Layton, remembering his father’s words, so applicable to his political philosophy.

The inconceivable sadness of the day was matched only by the incredible resilience displayed by those in mourning, from the strength shown by Layton’s wife, Olivia, to the unity shown by his admirers, lending hope to the prospect that Layton’s final courageous words will not go unheeded.

As Reverend Brent Hawkes remarked in his concluding words, “The torch is now passed. The job of making the world a better place is up to us.”