As friends, colleagues, and supporters gathered in Nathan Phillips Square to remember Jack Layton, we spoke with a few of the people who knew and worked with him often.
Monday afternoon, a crowd gathered in Nathan Phillips Square to mourn Jack Layton at the site where, as a newly elected city councillor in 1982, his political career began in earnest.
(He remained a municipal politician until 2003, with a short break in the early ’90s.)
Word had traveled quickly on Facebook and Twitter that the event would be occurring at 4:00 p.m., but there was little in the way of formal organization. A crowd of hundreds milled about in the square while someone in their midst read Layton’s farewell letter into a loudspeaker that wasn’t quite loud enough. Someone had brought along sidewalk chalk, and people began using it to write messages on the walls of the concrete ramp that leads from the square to City Hall’s podium green roof.
Nobody wept or rent their clothing, or anything like that (at least, not that we saw). It was a dignified, mostly silent act of remembrance.
We asked some of those who’d shown up why they’d come, starting with former city councillor and Rob Ford campaign scapegoat Kyle Rae.
Kyle Rae, former city councillor for Ward 27, gay rights advocate
What brings you here today?
I learned my politics from Jack. He got elected in ’82 in the downtown, and I learned from him. Being an activist in the gay community, I worked with him on pushing our agenda for equality rights here at City Hall.
He was our greatest advocate. No one else would touch us. Even though there was a closeted gay man on council who wouldn’t help us one bit, Jack was the one we went to. We didn’t have to explain to him what we were asking for.
Jack was our voice, I would say from about ’82. And then I got elected in ’91. I was the first openly gay [councillor], but for that first ten years he was our advocate. We fought Eggleton on declaring Pride Day, fought him about raising the flag. AIDS grants? Jack started them in 1987. And now this new, so-called mayor wants to dismantle them.
As chair of Toronto’s Board of Health, in the late ’80s, Layton was an advocate for devoting City resources to AIDS prevention, and helped organize a pioneering needle exchange program.
Is there one particular thing about Jack Layton you’ll always remember above all else?
You know what, he loved to talk. He loved having an audience. He loved being able to express to an audience what they were feeling. And it felt great, it felt good. That’s what was great about him.
One of my favourite moments was when we were auctioning during Gay Pride, and we convinced him to auction his very, very tight jeans.
Rae couldn’t recall what price the pants had sold for, or whether Layton had actually parted with them in the end.
Steve Munro, public transit activist
What was it about Jack Layton that you liked?
Jack was part of the left caucus of City Hall back in the days when I was comparatively young in the citizen activist movement and the whole transit fight.
He was certainly one of the leaders on council who was very strong on the idea of support for transit. Of course, in those days we had the problem—people talk about amalgamation as being the root of all evil—but back in those days we had Metro and we had the City, and transit was a Metro operation. And Jack actually did a lot of good work building bridges to people on the suburban side, so the transit system wasn’t completely starved.
Is there one thing about him that you’ll always remember above all else?
Probably that for all that he moved from local politics to being, finally, leader of the opposition—although I never really knew him in that era—there was never a sense of, “Oh, I’m above you all now.” He was still just Jack Layton. He’s my MP. Or was my MP.
Suzanne Roberts Smith, 30, Toronto-Danforth resident
What was it about Jack Layton that was important to you?
It’s kind of hard to identify. So much about Jack is important to me. I grew up in his constituency. And I grew up working for and being a part of celebrating the spirit of the NDP, and as far as I can remember, Jack was a part of that. And I feel fortunate to have seen him around my neighbourhood. Him and Olivia came to swim at the pool that I used to work at as a lifeguard.
What will you remember most about him?
Again, there’s so much. It’s hard to identify, but I suppose the essence of his capacity to speak, to connect the head and the heart, and to include everybody.
Justin Chatwin, 35, defeated NDP candidate for Eglinton-Lawrence in the 2011 federal election
Why did you come out today?
I was a candidate in the last election, so I’ve had a chance to work with Jack on a bunch of occasions. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were friends, but I knew the man. And just, his passion, his dignity, his integrity, his conviction, his commitment to social justice. It’s sort of brought everybody out.
Jack runs a massive, a national organization, so he can’t be around that much, but in his capacity as leader he was always there to offer advice or lend a helping hand. For a lot of people, he was the reason they got into politics, so it’s a sombre day.
Is there one particular thing you’ll always remember about Jack Layton?
We always have personal exchanges with people, so I want to keep that personal. But just generally his optimism—but just his pragmatism with the optimism. It’s easy to put your head up and say everything is great. But Jack, you know, for years and years has been saying, “Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.”
Elisa Mavilla, Chantal Quagliara, both 23
Elisa and Chantal were both wearing orange headbands, and were holding an orange sign with the words, “Jack: Inspiration for Our Generation” written on it in marker.
What made you decide to come, today?
Chantal: I think we both were generally very upset when we heard the news, so I think we wanted to come down here and support him and his memory.
Elisa: He was just an inspiration, and he got the youth interested in politics and he got us to care about what was going on with our day to day lives and I think that’s something that should just be honoured.
Is there anything in particular that you’ll remember about him above all else?
Elisa: Just that he was always smiling and he seemed like a regular guy, and I think that’s rare in politicians, to have somebody that you feel like you could go up to and say hey, how’s your day going, and he wouldn’t hesitate to talk to you and ask you how yours was.
Chantal: He was like the Trudeau of our times. He made politics cool.
Photos by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.