A dozen oranges: Jack Layton remembered at Toronto City Hall

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'This is our Royal Couple.' Photo: R.Jeanette Martin

"Jack was the reason I started voting."

- Message written in chalk on Nathan Phillips Square wall

Much has been said about NDP Opposition Leader Jack Layton over the past few days, and much more can be written about the legacy he left as a City of Toronto councillor. His son, Cllr. Mike Layton, will be hard pressed to continue his work and fight against deep cuts to core public services at Toronto's City Hall this September.

Representing bicyclists, the homeless, those with HIV, union members, and cultural producers, Jack Layton was an activist for a just society, with the flexibility to adapt to the new realities of climate change, AIDS, housing shortages, labour policy and pay equity. Mentored as a student by ex-mayors John Sewell and David Crombie, his policies instituted from his 1982 election to City Hall became the foundation of a progressive Toronto; these same policies are currently under systematic attack through a new neo-conservative agenda, spearheaded by Mayor Rob Ford.

The Monday morning of his death, I awoke to find that R. Jeanette Martin had posted on Facebook a photo of Jack and Olivia riding on a tandem bicycle at Pride, clad in orange, surrounded by fluorescent drag queens, and tagged it This is our Royal Couple. This is how Layton attended Pride, cycling in tandem with Olivia, emanating joy, pride and inclusivity, surrounded by the love of a community whose causes he championed far before it was fashionable. Olivia and Jack are, and were, a team that could not be beaten and deeply in sync.

When I asked Jeanette permission to write about this photograph, she said that Jack would not have liked that his regulation headshot was published in the mainstream media to commemorate his death, that her office is still a wreck from culling her archives to find the best shot after the announcement, and that this is her one of her favourite photos that she has ever taken as a freelance photojournalist. As her photo made the Facebook newsfeeds, the irony was not lost that our present mayor, Rob Ford, was present at Pride only in effigy, as dozens of people pointed out his absence in painted imagery and signs.

At 4 p.m., I biked to City Hall, and bought a dozen oranges in Chinatown, close to where Jack and Olivia lived. A bouquet of oranges, rather than roses, seemed a fitting tribute to the one known simply as 'Jack', who advocated that the wealth of the commons, taken from our natural and social resources, was redistributed to enable each citizen to live with dignity, with the possibility of a brighter future. As I handed each of these oranges to my friends -- artists, musicians, social justice activists, public sector employees, all proponents of city building -- I asked them to say a few words, and photographed them with City Hall in the background. Most were speechless with grief.

Meanwhile, mourners chalked their condolences for an outpouring of affection covering the walls and ground in Nathan Phillips Square, writing well into the night. Layton was a brilliant auctioneer with his red armbands and fast patter, but he auctioned for beneficial causes, such as the 519 Community Centre, not with the future resources of our country.

How do we commemorate a politician, activist and author who opened the first food bank in the city and wrote extensively about affordable housing issues in Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis? As suggested by the Toronto Star editorial this week, do we name a bicycle network, or re-name an existing Toronto space or service, such as Dundas Park, a homeless shelter, or Huron Street, the short stretch of road leading to the house he shared with Olivia in Chinatown?

To honour his political legacy, I would suggest renaming a homeless shelter, and establishing a scholarship for developing homeless policy through donations to the Broadbent Institute. I am afraid if we name a commuter bicycle network, under the current regime, it will never come to pass.

Swinging his cane, Layton may have hastened the progression of his cancer during his campaign for prime minister by leading the NDP to a landmark victory as a formidable opposition to the Conservative majority; it is moot to know, and something he hid from public view. He carefully chose not to share the prognosis, diagnosis or treatment of his spreading cancer so as not to influence the decisions of others during their course of treatment and so as to not upset his supporters.

The unprovoked vitriol, in the National Post article by Christie Blatchford, hit a man when he was gone, when he was unable to defend himself. His legacy of orange hope will live on, long after her words will be forgotten. For Blatchford, his last letter was grandstanding with empty platitudes, but then she has shown that the position of the new right focuses on a Canada whose soulless future does not include, or reflect, the common good it once served.

Rest in Peace, Jack. We will defend the house that Jack built.

Elizabeth Littlejohn blogs at Railroaded by Metrolinx and is a professor of new media. (This article is dedicated to my cousin, Ali, and her husband, Adrian, on their wedding day, Aug. 26, 2011. May your relationship be as in sync as Jack and Olivia's tandem ride. EL)

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