What a strange, emotional, unexpectedly beautiful week it’s been here in Toronto. If you’re Canadian, you’re well aware of that fact. If you’re not, perhaps you should be.
After a intensely eventful summer for Canadian and Toronto politics (and for either to even be remotely so is remarkable in itself) from the dramatic federal election on May 2nd to the shitshow that Toronto mayor Rob Ford threw at anyone that’s not a money-hungry right wing fascist all through June and July, last week brought an event into the narrative that trumped them all: Jack Layton, leader of Canada’s National Democratic Party and a icon of social democracy, died suddenly of cancer.
I noted this a few days back, and spent the days that followed in a hopeless daze that felt like the death of my optimism for Canada’s future, an optimism that had Jack had very much created earlier this year during the federal election. But now Jack was dead, and I feared the Canadian political left would suffer too great a loss to move on as planned without him.
But then something amazing happened. In the course of a few days, Canadians turned Jack Layton into not just an icon, but a legend. In large part due to this letter Jack wrote on his deathbed. A extensively quotable call to arms, Canadians seized its message and went to town: Signs on the street and on storefronts; facebook statuses, groups and profile pictures; t-shirts; and most especially, in chalk:
To walk down to Toronto City Hall – pictured above – and see the thousands of messages people wrote about Jack in chalk on the sidewalks and walls is something I’ll always remember. Quoting his letter, my fellow Canucks cried and hugged and passionately treated Layton as some sort of modern day Canadian Martin Luther King, Jr.. Never in my life have I witnessed an exclusively Canadian figure – let alone one in politics – to ignite such passion throughout the country. And it would only increase this past weekend, when tens of thousands of people (including myself) gathered in and around Roy Thompson Hall in downtown Toronto for Jack’s public state funeral. We walked in a “people’s procession” behind Layton’s coffin, holding the various symbols of Jack’s contribution to Canada: bikes (he loved them, and loved people who rode them), the colour orange (his party’s colour), gay pride flags (he was straight, but he was always a unabashed queer rights supporter)… It was astounding.
Then the funeral began. And unlike almost anything else produced for Canadian television, it proved a momentous, classy and awe-inspiring event (and most definitely the gayest state funeral ever held… Parachute Club’s “Rise Up” was performed, and the sermon was performed by the opening gay Rev. Brent Hawkes, who was at the forefront of the Canadian movement for same sex marriage).
Check out these videos from the funeral, most notably the eulogy from both Stephen Lewis (Naomi Klein’s father-in-law if you need a reference) and from Layton’s children Mike and Sarah:
As a result of these events, Canadians across the country seemed have ignited together in a storm of optimism for the return of a better Canada.. a socially democratic Canada that has truly fallen apart. I hope this spark continues through the months and years that follow Jack’s death. But one thing’s for sure: With Jack gone, Canada will never be the same. And he gave us a weekend where we came together as a county to hope for a better tomorrow…