The long goodbye to Jack Layton

The charismatic NDP leader’s sudden death unleashed six days of unprecedented mourning
The long goodbye
Jenna Marie Wakani/Maclean's

When, a decade or so ago, his activism in support of same-sex marriage triggered death threats, Rev. Brent Hawkes would call his friend Jack Layton, the Toronto city councillor who, along with his wife and colleague Olivia Chow, had done so much to champion gay rights, and gave him the specifics. The bullies said they’d turn up at this or that event, and promised violence. Layton was always determined to show up. When Hawkes, wearing a bulletproof vest, officiated at the 2001 double wedding ceremony that eventually led to the legalization of gay marriage, Layton was there.

Now here they were again, Layton and Hawkes, on stage at Roy Thomson Hall. Layton was dead—“cruelly gone, at the pinnacle of his career,” as eulogist Stephen Lewis put it—his body within a flag-draped casket that over the last days, amid much pomp, had travelled to Parliament Hill, to Quebec, and to Toronto’s City Hall, where thousands came, waited to gaze upon him, many with tears in their eyes.

Before Hawkes was an audience composed of some of the most powerful people in Canada, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who, while in opposition, had been a leading antagonist in the fight for gay marriage. This was a state funeral—an extraordinary gesture normally reserved for past and present governors general, prime ministers and cabinet ministers, but one that Harper had offered Layton’s family. Hawkes did not exploit the moment—not to partisan ends, anyway. Rather, he dwelt on the way Layton’s life, at its best—despite his mistakes, his “normal imperfections,” to quote Lewis again—could be used as a model to live better. “If the Olympics can make us prouder Canadians, maybe Jack’s life can make us better Canadians,” Hawkes said, noting that Layton was always careful to ask after his husband, John. “It’s about remembering, about remembering to say, ‘Hi, Brent. How’s John doing?’ Hawkes paused, looking into the hall. “Hi, Prime Minister. How’s Laureen doing?”

Laureen, emotional next to her husband, exchanged a tearful glance with Harper. The interjection, which generated laughs followed by whooping applause, was a clever way to acknowledge the presence of the Prime Minister without eliciting the opprobrium of a crowd primed by partisan politics to respond with jeers. It was a Laytonesque move.

His death unleashed six days of unprecedented mourning, a phenomenon that strained credulity: the passing of a card-carrying politician had galvanized a Canada grown cynical of politics to respond with a single voice.

Hours after his death, and after the release of a deathbed letter so passionately earnest that posters quoting it began appearing just as quickly, National Post columnist Christie Blatchford wondered at the reaction: “What once would have been deemed mawkish is now considered perfectly appropriate,” she wrote. The sentiment was premature—the extent of public emotion was still unknown. Here was something different: Layton, the NDP chief, was the first Canadian opposition leader with a seat in the House to die in more than 90 years—since Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1919—and was, at 61, in the prime of his life. Apart from his recent illness, he’d been fit, energetic, possessed of an infectious bonhomie; he lived on his bike. Immediately following a bout of prostate cancer and hip surgery, he’d thrown himself into an election, waving the cane he now carried over his head like a talisman of fortune. His efforts delivered the best electoral results in NDP history: 103 seats, catapulting the party to opposition status and, for the first time ever, shunting the Liberals into third place.

Layton, now leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, would sleep just a single night in Stornoway. In the span of three months Canadians watched Layton reach the “pinnacle of his career,” only to appear, in a late July press conference, utterly diminished by what he called a “new cancer.” He was heart-stoppingly thin, heavily made up with rouge, and spoke in a thin, sandpaper voice. Yet glimpses of his old power, emanating from a reserve of energy that appeared burning just below the skin, made the display impossibly moving. Some found themselves believing that Layton, the “happy warrior,” as former NDP leader Ed Broadbent later called him, might pull through. He was dead a month later.

That narrative arc, coupled with a thirst, particularly in Layton’s hometown of Toronto, for meaningful political engagement, made him a paragon. Within 24 hours at Toronto City Hall, where he’d toiled as an excitable city councillor for nearly 20 years, messages written in chalk covered the courtyard, a skin of progressive rhetoric that forced even Rob Ford, Toronto’s pugnacious, anti-graffiti mayor, into voicing his admiration. When it rained that Wednesday, washing away the words, it took just hours for the display to spread again, resurrected. “They’re all back,” former mayor David Miller said. “That’s how heartfelt it is.”

Layton’s casket first came into public view Wednesday morning, in the midst of an unseasonably cold Ottawa wind. On the Hill, the carillon bells tolled 15 times, an honour guard of eight RCMP pallbearers raised him, then shouldered his casket up the Centre Block steps. The dirge of a single piper led the way. Behind him, in what became a powerful motif, Chow walked alone. In tearful comments to reporters that recalled Walt Whitman’s famous salute to Abraham Lincoln—“Oh Captain! My Captain!”—NDP MP Paul Dewar called Layton “the captain of our ship. He took us to where we needed to go and so he steered us well.” In two days, almost 13,000 people lined up in the rain to pay their respects. Layton’s body left Ottawa to the echoes of a 15-gun salute and a serenade from Andrea McCrady, the Dominion carillonneur, who rang out O Canada, then squeezed the bells into John Lennon’s Imagine and the Dominion March, composed by his great-grandfather, Phillip Layton. When the casket emerged, the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. Chow followed it down; if anything, the applause only grew.

After a brief sojourn in Gatineau, Que., it arrived in Toronto on Thursday night to the sound of the same applause. “Welcome home, Jack,” some shouted. All night, as he lay in repose in the cavernous City Hall rotunda, Toronto police stood vigil at each corner of his casket, waiting for the public visitation to begin at 9 a.m. Retired RCAF captain Richard Harrison was first in line, arriving at 5 a.m. with a framed photograph of himself and Layton propped up between two candles. Around him, a tattoo of admiration and Tommy Douglas quotes spread out in chalk across Nathan Phillips Square. “You don’t know Jack like Toronto knows Jack,” read one. “You IGNITED my faith in politics, plus you dated my aunt in high school (briefly),” read another. “Namaste,” said a third. Photographs of Layton stood alongside flowers, images of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and, for less obvious reasons, a Patti Smith LP. Former mayor Mel Lastman, always of a different political tribe than Layton’s, called him “the conscience of Toronto.”

The line of mourners coiled around City Hall—people of all descriptions waiting hours to stand nearby Layton. By Friday evening some 4,000 had done so. The responses to the casket were as varied as the people themselves. One woman gave a brief, friendly wave and walked away, another crossed herself, a third blew a kiss. A tall man in a suit and orange tie tapped his heart. A middle-aged couple holding hands bowed three times, tears streaming down their cheeks. Surrounding them in the workaday rotunda, life went on: people paid their parking tickets.

In two hours on Saturday morning, another 1,300 people came. Outside there was such an eruption of pageantry you could occasionally forget all this was generated by a death. A phalanx of television cameras had assembled, buzzing with the personalities of TV news. Two clowns arrived, mugging sadness and wearing orange mourning bands, one removing his hat as he approached the crowd. Police honour guards in their very best uniforms exhaled great yawns of cigarette smoke, waved the cloud away and posed for photographs with beaming tourists. Weddings went on as planned, brides with bouquets threading their way through the mourners.

The hearse stood idly outside wrapped in the crowd. The people, as diverse as the contents of a Toronto subway car at rush hour, stood silently in the punishing late-August sun awaiting the casket. At the first glimpse of Chow they burst forth with applause. Soon the deliberate thrum of a snare ended the silence. The pipe band marched into the crowd. Inside, the careful hands of the Toronto police honour guards, gloved in white, lifted Layton to their collective shoulders. The casket, now in full daylight under a cloudless sky, set the crowd off again. The loaded hearse nosed forward, and Chow, walking alone, followed. At each new section of onlookers, a new wave of applause; occasionally she nodded, but mainly she kept her focus on the casket. As the hearse left the City Hall grounds, the mob began clapping in unison.

Heading south toward Roy Thomson Hall, the procession crawled down broad, tree-lined University Avenue. Behind it followed the People’s Procession, a citizen group invited to join the Layton entourage, many walking their bikes. At Queen Street, the cyclists began chiming their bells in unison, a great chorus that rose up from the pavement like upended church bells. They arrived at Roy Thomson Hall—and at gathering places around Toronto and the country—in the thousands to watch the service. When Lewis, the eulogist, called Layton’s letter “a manifesto for social democracy,” many within and without cheered, though the Tories in the hall glowered. But when, in his homily, Hawkes, Layton’s old friend, related the words he spoke during their last meeting—“Jack, I want to say to you now something that I know you will hear shortly. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ ”—it was as if the words were being uttered by all.