Sunday, August 28, 2011

Good By Jack

Lifelong politician and NDP leader Jack Layton died this week. He was taken away from the Canadian people long before he should have been. We will never know the heights this once-brash social democratic and “man of the people” could have reached. Many people think the role of Prime Minister was in the cards for our beloved Jack.

They could have been right. As Shirley Douglas, daughter of Tommy Douglas, the father of the NDP and Canadian Medicare said, “Nothing could stop Jack but death.” And as one chalk-written grafffitti tribute to the man on Toronto City Hall’s walls said, “You were the greatest Prime Minister we never had.” 

I knew Jack in his early years as a Toronto politician. He was an appealing but mildly cocky firebrand at the time, but I couldn’t help but love him for the zeal with which he championed the community on Toronto island I live in. When the Metropolitan government of Toronto was determined to tear down our houses to make way for more lucrative development on the land here, Jack’s voice was loud and clear. Keep your hands off! He appreciated that we’re an historical and vibrant community that should be saved from the hands of the bulldozer.

Jack had such a fondness for the Toronto island community, that he and his wife were married in the meadow near our Algonquin Island clubhouse, the place my husband and I were married. The difference between their wedding and mine however were the number of political speeches. Ours had none, theirs had too many to count. Jack’s lifeblood was politics as was/is his wife’s Olivia Chow. A match made in heaven. Some of Jack’s ashes are to be spread here, by the tree he and Olivia planted on their wedding day.

I needed to pay my respects to Jack by being physically present at the monumental tribute planned by Torontonians. As much as I would have liked to be inside Roy Thompson Hall for the state funeral, I knew that could never happen considering the number of people lining up the night before to get a seat. So instead, I joined the thousands of people who marched down University Avenue as part of the cortege that left city hall to Roy Thomson, following Olivia, Jack’s children, and his casket.  Once we reached the grounds outside Roy Thomson, large video screens and sound systems were set up so that we could all see and hear the funeral proceedings.

Former NDP leader Stephen Lewis' speech, not surprisingly, was eloquent and moving. The Barenaked Ladies’ Stephen Page sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah beautifully, though how anyone has the guts to sing that song after K.D.Laing did it so perfectly is amazing to me.  She’s a pretty tough act to follow. He did it in his own way though, and had everyone in tears. It must have been a highlight of his career to be chosen to sing, and every ounce of that man went into the song.

What was special about the funeral and procession (and the whole city hall chalk graffitti tribute) is the remarkable optimism, hope, belief and idealism that people brought with them in Jack's  honour, whether they were NDP or Jack supporters (which I am only to a degree).

The belief that permeated everything was that this is a remarkable, special and wonderful country, but we can do better, and we must and can. The outpouring of love and respect from people from such varied cultural and racial backgrounds was staggering. Every message was of love, inclusivity, respect and goodness. Really and truly. Not an ounce of cynicism, negativism, divisive politics, guile or self-interest in any message or tribute. it was really something to behold.

It was the best crowd in the world to be in. Civility was in the air.

The whole proceedings were inclusive to such a degree, a la Jack's wishes, there were many messages and songs in French; Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders gave opening prayers; a eulogy by a First Nations spokesperson kicked off the proceedings; the presence of women and people of colour was  everywhere.  And if that wasn’t enough, as per Jack’s style,  the funeral even included an Innuit, one-legged francophone singer.  The whole thing made me proud to be a (near) Canadian (next month, I sign the dotted line!).

Jack's children spoke beautifully and really showed a lovely human side to the man, besides his politics. Olivia was stoic, as is her style. Daughter Sarah let it be known she is expecting. She didn't have to say it, and didn't. Jack will not see his newest grandchild.

The proceedings for Jack were all so very, well, uh...Jack!  Can you imagine talking about Prime Minister Stephen Harper and referring to him as Stephen, Steve or Steve-O?

Jack was Jack, and to his credit, I believe he went from brash to confident in his years in politics and grew as a person along the way.  The minister who was with him near his death said Jack talked a lot about the mistakes he made in his life and his regret that he would not live long enough to make it up to the people he had wronged. This regret seemed very important to him, and he asked the minister to speak to this in his eulogy. 

Jack had his own style, and it sure rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but he was led by his convictions through and through, no doubt about it. His  joy for life was contagious. That counts for a lot. More than a lot, actually.

Good by dear Jack.