On August 22, 2011, I woke up to a text from my fiance, asking why I hadn’t told him about Jack Layton. I didn’t need to ask what he meant; I knew before loading the news on the internet. Canada had lost one of its greatest politicians to cancer, and I was deeply upset. No politician is perfect; I will never say that. Jack Layton came as close as you can get in my books, and his spirit was – and remains – a huge inspiration to me in my personal life. A champion for LGBTQ rights; a supporter of women’s reproductive rights; one of the key voices in the White Ribbon campaign, a group of men taking action to stop violence against women; an environmentalist; a supporter of First Nations voices. Jack Layton was all of these things. As a bisexual childfree-by-choice woman who is a survivor of domestic and sexual violence, Jack was someone that I knew cared about what mattered to me. He was always optimistic, always striving for a better country. He also had a love of music, which made him even cooler, and had the ability to laugh at himself.
So when the city pulled together an impromptu gathering at Nathan Phillips Square, I was there. I laughed, cried and wrote in chalk. I wrote on memorial board given to the family, as well as a condolence message book at City Hall. When the state funeral was announced, my brother and I lined up at 10:30pm the night before, running on nothing but love for forty hours through the next day’s “celebration of the life of Jack Layton”. And it was; just as Jack himself had planned, it was primarily a music-loaded rejoicing in his life and the things he loved. It was perfectly Jack.
This year, the Layton family arranged a celebration to mark the first year after his passing and, like that festive memorial, it was something Jack would have loved. A few tears were shed, but mostly, the people packed into Nathan Phillips Square sang, danced and swapped memories as music filled the air. Chalkmaster Dave, a local artist whose work is simply incredible, created a chalk portrait on canvass that was stunning. Jian Ghomeshi, our master of ceremonies, noted that if Jack were there, he’d immediately auction it off to raise funds for a cause. I grinned because he was absolutely right.
Richard Underhill treated us again to his take on Van Morrison’s classic tune “Into The Mystic”, while Jason Collett (of Broken Social Scene and solo endeavors) offered us “Love Is A Dirty Word” (“I promise it’s not antithetical to Jack’s message”) and “I’ll Bring The Sun”, requested by Olivia Chow.
Who else but Jack Layton could bring Raffi, Ron Sexsmith and Dallas Green to the same stage? It was surreal to sing along with a children’s performer and then stand mesmerized, watching the talented green perform “We Found Each Other In The Dark” and “Against The Grain”. It was fitting and symbolic of the way Layton brought people together. Many people disagreed with the NDP Party, but they still admired Jack and wanted to have a beer with him.
By the end of the celebration, wrapped up with Lorraine Segato’s performance of “Rise Up” with the Layton family on stage and dancing, one had the sense that this was a needed smile and catharsis for the family. It’s never easy being in the public spotlight; to grieve there, with everyone watching, is that much harder. I lost my grandfather to cancer in 2008. Like Layton, he was consumed with ensuring others were okay, that his funeral was planned out, that he left us with reassuring words. I could see the pain behind the brave smiles of the family, especially Olivia. But, like Olivia, Mike and Sarah, I understand that losing someone with the sort of love of life Layton possessed means doing your best to honour their spirit. For me, it’s shots of cherry brandy (a favourite of my grandfather’s) and watching UFC events, commenting on fights he would have loved; for the Laytons, it’s community and song.
“Jack would have loved this!” Olivia exclaimed as she took the stage. No one could disagree.
Again, the Square was covered in chalk, boxes of it left all over for people to pick up and use. A stepladder was on site for the higher parts of the wall. Dutifully, I picked up my chalk and wrote another message. A writer, words failed me for several minutes. I went with my heart.
Jack would have loved that, too.