An unconventional state funeral for former NDP leader Jack Layton took on the verve of a political rally Saturday, as friends and family tried to galvanize the national grief over the loss of his passionate voice into a call to action.
Elder NDP statesman Stephen Lewis led the charge, earning loud cheers and standing ovations as he extolled the virtues of Layton’s social democratic vision for Canada.
With a political who’s-who of all stripes in the audience, even staunch Conservatives like Prime Minister Stephen Harper joined the crowd in applause as Lewis rattled off a host of Layton’s New Democrat-friendly causes such as gay rights, housing and the environment.
Layton’s final letter to Canadians, which has resonated with so many in the days since his death, was “at its heart, a manifesto for social democracy,” Lewis said.
“He wanted in the simplest and most visceral terms a more generous Canada,” the former Ontario NDP leader and one-time Canadian ambassador said after a sustained standing ovation.
“His letter embodies that generosity ... He talks of social justice, health care, pensions, no one left behind, seniors, children, climate change, equality, and — again that defining phrase — a more inclusive and generous Canada.”
The letter’s now famous anthem — “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” — has been emblazoned on T-shirts and even tattooed on the arm of one man who described himself as a Conservative.
The funeral’s political messaging was unmistakable, although the family had said the state funeral was to be a “celebration of life.”
And it was relentless.
Lewis, who led the Ontario wing of the party in the 1970s, went on to boldly suggest that a political sea change was in the wind, one that would sustain the upward trajectory that propelled the perpetually third-place NDP to Official Opposition status in the May election.
“We’re all shaken by grief, but I believe we’re slowly being steadied by a new resolve, and I see that resolve in words written in chalk and in a fresh determination on people’s faces,” Lewis said, referring to hundreds of messages scrawled in chalk on the grounds of Toronto City Hall.
“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.”
In a video tribute peppered with old clips of Layton fighting for women’s rights, gay rights and for the poor, Layton’s wife and constant companion, MP Olivia Chow, was heard to speak publicly for the first time since her husband’s death.
“Some people say to me that Jack’s voice is gone, ’I’m so sad,”’ she said. “Yeah, I’m sad. We’re sad. But let us not look behind us, let’s look forward. Look at what we can accomplish together to make sure that Jack’s voice is not silenced. I think that’s a good way to celebrate his life.”
Layton’s son Mike, a Toronto city councillor, spoke of his father’s drive and determination, especially on their many cycling and fishing outings, and left the audience with a piece of advice from his dad.
“Always have a dream that is longer than a lifetime,” he said. “Be loving, be hopeful, be optimistic. Together we can build the world of our dreams. And, as he always said, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done.”’
Layton’s daughter Sarah cast her father in a more personal light, talking about his love for his granddaughter Beatrice. Still, it seemed even the personal anecdotes had a political background. She recalled the night she called her dad “Grandpa Jack,” to let him know she was pregnant and how it reduced him to tears — it was election night, 2008.
In fact, Rev. Brent Hawkes, a longtime friend and gay-rights advocate who had been planning Layton’s funeral with him since last month, said the funeral’s political tone was exactly what Layton had in mind.
“Jack didn’t want this celebration of life to be primarily focused on him,” he said. “He wanted us somehow to talk about the issues and the themes and on an inclusive movement gathering all of us together ... He wanted this service to inspire us and to challenge us.”
Former prime minister Jean Chretien, whose own popularity appears largely undimmed, afterward called the service a “good occasion” and celebration of public life. The partisan nature of some of the eulogies didn’t bother the die-hard Liberal.
“It’s virtually impossible,” Chretien said with his trademark shrug and grin. “Some cannot refrain completely having an audience like that.”
Layton’s message clearly resonated with many Canadians, as thousands of people came in droves Saturday to pay their respects, waiting overnight to attend the funeral, line the procession route and flood the public visitation.
Organizers say about 1,300 people passed through Toronto City Hall for the final two hours of visitation, with scores more lining up for the chance to attend the funeral. Large video screens were set up outside to accommodate the overflow crowd.
Harper said the funeral capped an “extraordinary and very emotional week.”
“Canadians, supporters and opponents alike, have had an opportunity to ... honour, to express their gratitude for Jack Layton’s contribution to public life and I hope all of this has been some comfort to his friends and family,” he said.
Gov.-Gen. David Johnston said he was there to represent all Canadians.
“It’s a time of mourning for us, but also a time to celebrate a remarkable life of leadership,” he said. “But it’s so important in our system to have a clear and passionate voice for the ordinary person and Mr. Layton was that person.”
Also attending the funeral were Ontario Lt.-Gov. David Onley, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and former Ontario Lt.-Gov. Lincoln Alexander.
“I’m here for the same reason that all of these people are here: Everybody was very much touched by Jack Layton’s passion for public life and his belief in the future of Canada,” said former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin.
Layton died Monday at the age of 61, just weeks after revealing he had been diagnosed with an unspecified cancer.
The site of Layton’s funeral was not far from the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where Layton held his victory party for the May 2 election, when he propelled the NDP to an historic high of 103 seats and official Opposition status for what had been Canada’s perpetual third party.
Layton’s funeral procession, led by horse-mounted police, followed by pipe and drum bands and an honour guard, moved slowly down the few blocks to Roy Thomson Hall as hundreds of people lining the route broke into applause.
Chow walked alone behind the hearse and Layton’s children, Mike and Sarah and their spouses followed, walking hand-in-hand.
In keeping with Layton’s wishes, those in attendance were asked to write down something they’ll do to make the world a better place.
Layton’s death last Monday touched off an extraordinary outpouring of national grief, not often seen in Canada.
People have set up makeshift memorials at his Toronto home and constituency office, often marked by orange flowers, the colour associated with the New Democratic Party. Cans of Orange Crush have been left by the public to symbolize the wave that swept the NDP to Official Opposition status in May.
Heartfelt messages in tribute to Layton are still being scrawled in coloured chalk all over the grounds of City Hall.
Niagara Falls, an iconic symbol of Canada, was illuminated in orange at various times Saturday night and the CN Tower was also lit in orange from sundown Saturday until sunrise Sunday in honour of the late NDP leader.
The man who inspired so many across the country will have three final resting places. Some of his ashes will be planted at a family plot along with a memorial tree at the cemetery affiliated with Wyman United Church in Hudson, Que., where Layton was raised.
Layton’s ashes will also be scattered on the Toronto Islands, where he married Chow in 1988 and the remaining ashes will be buried at the St. James Cemetery in Toronto.