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Remembering Jack Layton

Aaron S. Bayley

On the last Friday of August, in the early evening, I was walking south along Bay Street, on my way to Kops Records on Queen. I usually walk fast with purpose, but as I hit the underpass just before Nathan Philips Square, I stopped to read some of the writing on the wall dedicated to deceased NDP leader Jack Layton and found myself in a contemplative mood.

I stood alone reading the messages. Some of them revealed the pain and hurt of a life lost, others were more celebratory and praised Layton's accomplishments. As I continued walking south I noticed the messages covered not only the wall but the ground. I looked around me and saw drawings and messages written everywhere. It was as if they snuck up on me out of nowhere, just as the NDP party, under Layton's stewardship, had come out of nowhere to come in second in the polls, ahead of the Liberals, the so-called natural governing party of Canada. In my early 20s I read books on Marxism and Che Guevera and voted, perhaps naively, for the NDP and even the Marxist-Leninists. As I became more politically educated and informed I oscillated between the Liberals and NDP. I always admired Layton's candour and decency, even if his kitschy "kitchen table values" and "times they-are-a-changin'" folksy rhetoric came off as a little tacky. The NDP's values reflect my own values more than those of any of the other parties, and I proudly voted for my local NDP candidate in May. But Layton's message of hope and his refusal to entertain and campaign on a politics of despair, resonated with Canadians nationwide. Layton was already known as an underdog before he was stricken with cancer, had been an underdog his entire political life. The fact that he was ill served to underline the urgency of his message for a better Canada and make him out to be a kind of social justice warrior.

As I approached the northwest corner of Queen and Bay, a few more people walked leisurely past me. Then I emerged from the underpass into the Square feeling as if I had walked into some kind of afterlife. The sun was shining down, and orange flowers, orange balloons, and orange signs burst out and up from the dull grey concrete. There were people everywhere taking pictures, couples walking hand-in-hand and others making their own contributions to the ever-growing memorial. But the thing that struck me was how peaceful everyone seemed. It was surreal. Torontonians had converged on this place to express their  feelings, but it was mostly an outpouring of joy, not of grief. Layton never was able to stage his own Orange Revolution, but he certainly struck a chord with millions of people tired of singing the same old tune.

On the wall of the underpass, as if to express their anxiety over not fitting in aesthetically, someone had scribbled, "I wish I had orange chalk!" Jack wouldn't have minded. In Jack Layton's Canada, everyone belonged.


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