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John Bonnar is an independent journalist covering social justice events in and around Toronto through print, photo, audio, video and slideshows. You can connect with him on Facebook (John Bonnar) or on Twitter at @johnb98 or on YouTube at johnb98.

Remembering Jack Layton

| August 24, 2012
A year after his death, hundreds came out for the Jack Layton celebration at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. Photo: John Bonnar

One year later, hundreds walked or cycled into Nathan Phillips Square to celebrate the life of a man who devoted himself to social justice, fairness and equality.

The man known to everyone as Jack.

He'd made his mark in municipal politics, where he'd served as a Toronto city councillor since 1982, before moving on to federal politics as the leader of the NDP in 2003.

For 8 years, he toiled in obscurity. Leader of the fourth party. Even the “pundits” weren't expecting much from the NDP a few months before the last election.

Click here to see more photos from the Jack Layton celebration.

Surprisingly though, he led his party to their best ever showing, winning over 100 seats and becoming the leader of the Official Opposition.  

But less than four months later, the cancer that he'd battled for months finally claimed his life, leaving the country to collectively mourn his loss.

Even his fiercest opponents paid tribute to Jack Layton. Not just because they felt obligated to. But because they genuinely admired the man, even though they detested his politics.

On a pleasant August evening, a year after his death, Layton devotees decorated the concrete slabs at Nathan Phillips Square with handwritten chalked messages of hope, love and thanks.

“Gone but not forgotten.” 

“I hope, I'm optimistic.” 

“Jack's inner circle included everyone.”

“You left us too soon.”

Many people, wearing white t-shirts with “I am the Layton Legacy” emblazoned in orange letters, strolled through the Square.

Peeking out from behind the clouds, the sun bathed the Square with its early evening glow, casting lengthening shadows across the concrete structure.

Ten media outlets aimed their tripod mounted television cameras at the stage where, in less than an hour, the Layton family & friends, along with the Broadbent Institute, would host a celebration of Jack's life.

Musicians performed their endless on-stage sound checks. A giant orange and black banner with a picture of Jack and a message of thanks hung at the back of the stage.

Around 5:30 pm, the media converged on Olivia Chow as she sauntered past the flower lined concrete wall of the ramp on the east side of the Square, inspecting the chalked messages left by well-wishers. 

She wore a black, mid-length dress with black pumps.

Then she stopped, picked up a piece of yellow chalk and scrolled her own message to Jack. As she wrote“Alive in Our Hearts”, an awed silence fell over the area that was broken only by the clicking sounds of dozens of cameras beside, in front and above her.

Moments later, she climbed on to a step ladder and scrawled another message. 

“Love Hope Optimism.”

It's also the title of a book published last week, co-edited by James L. Turk and Charis Wahl. After his death last year, Turk and Wahl gathered stories and anecdotes about Jack Layton from dozens of people who knew him at various stages in his life.

She drew a heart around the Hope, stepped down off the ladder and continued moving along the wall before hugging an admirer who pointed to her group's message.

Then she was scrummed by the media, who peppered her with questions about Jack, his legacy, where she goes from here, what life's been like the last year and what still needs to be done.

She smiled continuously as she politely answered their questions, the same questions she's been asked time and time again over the last year, handling the intense scrutiny with her usual grace and dignity.

CUPE Ontario president still can't believe that it's been a year since Jack's death.

“The impact that he's had on our people, on our country, on politics is sustained and continues to grow,” said Hahn.

“And that was Jack. He had this infectious way of being optimistic that really did inspire people.”

Nearby, a young woman sat on the concrete in the Square and wrote “I am trying my hardest because you tried your hardest. Thank you.”

“I think about Jack almost every day,” said Ontario NDP MPP Peter Tabuns. 

“We worked together very closely. He did extraordinary stuff. He was an amazing person. And I'm really pleased that people have turned out to remember him. But I really feel a sense of loss today.”

NDP MP Peggy Nash can't fathom that it was only a year ago that people gathered in Nathan Phillips Square to mourn the loss of Jack Layton.

“We miss him dearly in the House of Commons,” said Nash. 

“There is a sense of mission with our caucus that we are going to continue to make Jack proud. And we are going to work hard so that in 2015 we take the next step to become government so that we can bring Jack's vision of Canada into reality.”

Housing activist Michael Shapcott said he continues to be inspired just coming to City Hall. 

“Back in 2004 we did some very powerful actions around the homeless memorial which helped propel some of these issues on to the national stage,” said Shapcott.

“So I find for me it's a time to rediscover inspiration and how we can make things happen.”

Jon Alexander, who came to know Jack through his work on homeless and housing with the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, said it was nice to see all the people coming together on Wednesday.

“When we walked into the Square, I was just blown away by the numbers,” said Alexander, who recalled how approachable Jack was.

“Whenever I'd run into him on the street, you could always talk to him about issues. He always had an idea or suggestions on so many things.”

As the celebration kickoff approached, featuring performances from Lorraine Segato, Jason Collett, Ron Sexsmith, Raffi, Richard Underhill, Eric Peterson and Chalkmaster Dave, several hundred more people had arrived in the Square.

People from all walks of life came to pay tribute to Jack, which is a testament to the kind of man he was. He could connect with anyone. Almost instantly.

“I come here for very personal reasons that exist way beyond the political,” said emcee and CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi.

“Jack was a very dear friend and mentor for me.”

Ghomeshi, now 45, first met Jack twenty five years ago at pro-choice rally outside The Morgentaler Clinic in Toronto. 

“As many of you know, Jack was a tireless supporter for reproductive choice for women in Canada,” said Ghomeshi. 

“He was someone who wouldn't hesitate to act on or give feedback on any suggestion. Nothing was too bold or too wacky or too naive.”

The last time Ghomeshi spent time with Jack was the day after last year's election. It was backstage at the Hope Rising Benefit for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. 

“I was hosting and we did a little dance together,” he said. “He had his cane and he was dancing to Alicia Keys. And I will savour that moment.”

All evening, the big screen to the right of the stage displayed a steady stream of messages from dearjack.ca, a website where ordinary Canadians can write about how Jack's message of love, hope and optimism still has meaning in their lives.

Under Jack's leadership, Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan ran two campaigns as an NDP candidate for Oshawa. 

“I had a very personal relationship with Jack going back over twenty years,” said Ryan.

“His legacy is that today people actually believe that we can form the government. That sense of belief is something the NDP has never had because we always thought we were the perennial third party.”

After several musical performances, Olivia Chow finally took centre stage and thanked everyone for coming out.

“Jack would have loved this,” said Chow. 

“Today is a sad day but it's also a good day. A day to remember Jack's life. A day to renew our commitment to continue his work. Jack's voice is not with us tonight but his vision is.”

A dream that included an economy with good jobs and a clean environment. More equality. Better care for seniors and children. Improved health-care and education.

Chow admitted she's had a tough time getting through this past year.

“There were difficult days and traumatic moments and times that have tried me to the core,” she said. “And each time I've had the loving embraces of so many of you.” 

Countless numbers sent cards and emails of support. Others sent songs and paintings. Or stories of how Jack touched their lives.

“It has been your connections and your belief in Jack's values that have allowed me and our family to get through this year,” she said.

“And I'm forever indebted to all of you.”

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