Mourners on Toronto streets remember Jack Layton
Published Sunday, August 28, 2011 2:43PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 5:47AM EDT
When Jack Layton's casket began its final journey through downtown Toronto on Saturday afternoon, throngs of mourners outside City Hall made their grief known in a manner not typically seen at funerals.
Thunderous applause, not solemn observation, greeted the federal NDP leader's casket as pallbearers carried it into Nathan Phillips Square. Hundreds of mourners donned orange clothing, not black, as they hung off balconies to whistle and cheer his name.
The show of support was strong but not solemn. While it wasn't an ordinary memorial, many who flocked to City Hall on Saturday argue it was fitting for Layton — who was never an ordinary politician.
When Layton entered Toronto municipal politics in the early ‘90s, he earned a name for himself as a scrappy city councillor with a passion for social justice and a penchant for wearing blue jeans.
That's how Jeff Tennant remembers the late NDP leader. Tennant, now a French professor at the University of Western Ontario, volunteered for Layton's unsuccessful race to become mayor of Toronto in 1991.
Standing amid a crowd of mourners in Nathan Phillips square, Tennant says that driving his family from London Ont. to Layton's funeral procession is the least he could do for a man who gave so much of himself to the city.
Though Tennant said he had been prepared for Layton's death after seeing how frail the leader looked during his last press conference in July, he says the passing still came as a shock.
"You could just tell that the illness had taken its toll physically, but not spiritually. Jack was never beaten down in spirit," he told CTVNews.ca while his six-year-old daughter, decked out in an all-orange outfit, sat on his shoulders.
Michael Louis Johnson, an activist and musician, had his trumpet in tow as he marched with the procession while it travelled across King Street.
A troupe of musicians followed behind him; some rattling tambourines, others blowing into saxophones and a motley assortment of horns.
Johnson organized the up-tempo musical tribute online after learning Layton's casket would travel through the downtown core. He emailed every musician he knew and urged them to come out for a spontaneous performance.
The musician says it is the least he could do for Layton.
"Layton is a linchpin for revolution in Toronto," said Johnson, as the procession stopped in front of Roy Thomson Hall. "Just look at the city's bike culture, he set up the framework for that."
Johnson said he thought a musical tribute would be especially apt, since he and Layton once performed together. When the Toronto Blue Jays won the world series in 1993, people filled into the streets. Layton, who had his saxophone, performed a duet with Johnson on trumpet.
Tarwinder Singh isn't old enough to vote, but the 13-year-old said he felt compelled to participate in Saturday's funeral procession.
"I'm here to support Jack Layton because there's no one like him," he said while standing in Nathan Phillips Square with four friends.
"I can't even describe it exactly, there just something good about him."
Singh falters a bit when he tries to articulate why he likes Layton, but he gets his point across in the end. Not only as a youth, but as a member of Toronto's Sikh community, Singh says Layton really worked to reach out to minority groups.
That's why, when Layton's casket emerged from City Hall on Saturday, Singh and his friends rang a bike bell in celebration of Layton's life.
Elsewhere in the crowd, Karen Smythe had the day off and decided to walk in the procession.
As a nurse, Smythe said she particularly agrees with Layton's emphasis on healthcare and human rights and the idea that "everybody deserves to live well."
"While I didn't agree with everything that Jack Layton said, I admire that he had a vision — something that can be rare in politics."
"What I hope is that the support doesn't stop today. The true test won't be whether we name a square after him, it'll be whether we work to make his vision a reality."
Outside Roy Thomson Hall, a crowd watching a giant video screen claps and whoops as Julie Michels sang 'Get Together' -- signalling the end of the funeral.
Though many were filtering out from the service, several stayed behind.
A woman carrying her toddler while watching the funeral adjusts her fidgeting daughter on her knee. The girl wore a shirt in two different shades of orange.
For a moment, all that can be heard in David Pecaut Square is the steady clicking of dozens of bikes leaving the area. After a few minutes, the sound of bagpipes becomes louder and louder as the video screen signals Layton's casket is entering the hearse.
The toddler who was fidgeting on her mom's knee is silent now. She is staring at her mother who is sobbing quietly while watching the screen. The toddler moves her mother's hair back to wipe away her tears.
As the hearse carrying Layton's casket drives away, hundreds of people clap. Cyclists ring their bells. Then, after a minute, everything is silent as crowds watch it drive away.