Saturday, August 27, 2011

Honoring "Grandpa Jack"

The Globe and Mail reports, Final tribute to Jack Layton celebrates his message of hope, optimism:
Jack Layton’s friends and supporters paid him fitting tribute Saturday afternoon. But again and again, his loved ones urged mourners to move on in his spirit, issuing a call to build real change out of his legacy.

That was Mr. Layton’s wish, planned before he succumbed to cancer in the early hours of Monday morning. And it came through loud and clear from his wife, Olivia Chow, who was not among the service’s eulogists but appeared instead in a video tribute played during the ceremony (see video below).

“Yeah I'm sad, we’re sad. But let us not look behind us, let us look forward,” Ms. Chow said in the video, while she watched from the front row. “I think that's a good way to celebrate his life.”

As much as ever, crowds followed the late NDP leader’s message of hope and optimism, both figuratively and literally. Groups of mourners ran alongside the hearse carrying his casket as it moved through downtown Toronto, led by a brigade of pipers and flag-bearers.

They came in droves, many dressed in orange, and cheered him as he went. Some wore “Thank You Jack” t-shirts, and others carried treasured objects Mr. Layton had given them years earlier.

Inside Roy Thomson Hall, some 1,700 invited guests and dignitaries and another 600 members of the public applauded gently as the casket was carried in.

The ceremony began in sombre fashion, and never lacked for tears. But it had moments of laughter as well, beginning with officiant Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes pointing out his robes were red, not orange. Mr. Layton’s daughter Sarah rhymed off a list of ways her father had charmingly embarrassed his family - including “your fashion sense in those early years”.

Those in attendance at the funeral routinely rose to their feet for a series of standing ovations. And the ceremony was full of music – one of Mr. Layton’s passions – starting with a movement of G.F. Handel’s Messiah through a sparing but moving rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” sung by Steven Page. Singer Lorraine Segato’s performance of “Rise Up” had spectators dancing outside in David Pecaut Square.

Stephen Lewis, who gave the first of three passionate eulogies, noted the way Mr. Layton died – “so suddenly gone, cruelly gone, at the pinnacle of his career.”

“Jack simply radiated an honesty,” Mr. Lewis said, something “we’ve been thirsting for.”

The service also paid tribute to Mr. Layton’s trademark stubbornness in pursuing his favourite causes, from homelessness and environmentalism to gay rights and HIV/AIDS campaigns. His son, Toronto city councillor Mike Layton, recalled his father’s refusal to turn back on disastrous father-son biking and sailing trips.

“This is how my father lived his whole life. ... He’d pour everything into achieving a goal,” the younger Mr. Layton said. “‘You can wait until you have perfect conditions,’ he said, ‘or you can make the best of what you’ve got now.”

Several of Mr. Layton’s political allies and opponents noted the spirit of the occasion had allowed old foes to stand together.

Dr. Hawkes tearfully recounted sitting with Mr. Layton the night before he died, and hearing the politician profess that “I’ve had a great and blessed life, but it has been far from perfection – I have made some mistakes.”

“He was in awe of the trust given to him of late,” when voters launched him into the Official Opposition in Parliament, Dr. Hawkes said.

But Mr. Layton also wanted desperately to help bring about an inclusive movement that would make Canada a more generous place, Dr. Hawkes said. Differing opinions would be welcome, but people would work with respect, with optimism in the face of defeats, and assuming the good intent in each other.

“If the Olympics can make us prouder Canadians maybe Jack’s life can make us better Canadians,” Dr. Hawkes said, before emerging from behind the lectern and pointing his finger at the thousands of mourners facing him.

“May we rise to the occasion, because the torch is now passed. The job of making the world a better place is up to us,” Dr. Hawkes concluded.

Following cremation, Jack Layton’s ashes will be spread in three different locations – one in Quebec, honouring his birthplace and site of the NDP’s political breakthrough, and two in his home city of Toronto.

The late Opposition Leader’s principal secretary Brad Lavigne, who is also an honourary pallbearer at Saturday’s state funeral, told The Globe a portion of the ashes will be planted with a memorial tree at the Wyman United Church cemetery in Hudson, Que., where Mr. Layton grew up.

Another portion will be scattered on the Toronto Islands, where Mr. Layton and Olivia Chow were married in 1988, and where a memorial tree will also be planted. The third portion of his ashes will be buried at St. James Cemetery in the city’s downtown.

After graduating from McGill in Montreal, Mr. Layton moved to Toronto to do his PhD at York University, later teaching political science at Ryerson. He served for many years as a municipal politician and was elected as the MP for Toronto-Danforth in 2004.

I watched some of the service today, including Stephen Lewis' incredible eulogy ("tough act to follow" indeed), and the moving eulogy of his daughter, Sarah, and son, Mike. Must admit, choked up and teared like crazy when Sarah spoke about "grandpa Jack." I felt her grief and love for her father and thought about my aging humble father who worries about me.

I will also openly admit that even though I never voted NDP in my life (came close last election but exercised my right not to vote instead), I always admired Jack Layton's authenticity and the generosity he radiated. He was a man of conviction and principles, a rare politician in an age of political cronyism.

My problem is that even though I'm a fiscal conservative and would introduce cuts to the federal government and amalgamate Crown corporations that would make Prime Minister Harper blush, I'm a fierce social liberal who believes in fighting for justice, especially for the poor, elderly, and disabled. I fundamentally believe that Canada has ways to go before we can truly call ourselves a "just nation." Unfortunately, the real unemployment scandal is thriving right here in good old Canada.

How do I know? Because I'm part of those unemployed and worse still, continuously struggle with discrimination based on the fact that I suffer from Multiple Sclerosis (MS). I don't let it get to me but I worry about our society and the hundreds of thousands of other disabled who aren't as blessed as I am and have been marginalized and castigated to a life of poverty.

I also think about pension poverty, an issue that I have championed through this blog with the help of others, and will continue to push hard on. I think the NDP and Liberals got it right with expanded CPP, and the Conservatives got it wrong pandering to banks and insurance companies. If you don't understand why the fuss over pensions, then you simply don't understand Jack Layton's vision of social justice. I think Jack would agree with me on this: why shouldn't all Canadians receive the same pension guarantees as the MPs and Ministers in Ottawa? Are we too stupid to see that we're heading down a road that leads to pension poverty?

As I watched the state funeral honoring this great Canadian, I noticed Charles ('Chuck') Taylor, in the crowd. Professor Taylor is a humble giant in political philosophy and he had a profound intellectual influence in my life. At McGill University, I used to take his courses as electives and audit others for pure intellectual stimulation. Through him, I learned all about the beauty and shortcomings of political liberalism, and the social justice he, Michael Walzer, Alasdair MacIntyre and other "communitarians" envisioned based on the timeless writings of Aristotle and other great thinkers. I miss those McGill days where I can walk into the classroom and listen to Chuck's lecture on political philosophy.

Finally, I think the best way to honor someone like Jack Layton is to just be a good Canadian citizen and show our love for this great country by doing our small part in making it a better place to live. My small part is called Pension Pulse, and as long as I'm healthy, hope to continue blogging on pensions and markets for many years to come. Below, a moving tribute to "grandpa Jack as well as Stephen Lewis' and Sarah Layton's moving eulogies." Canadians will miss you, Jack.

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