In mourning, a call to action

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As funeral guests gathered at the door of the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto to mourn Jack Layton's passing and celebrate his life on Saturday, activists, First Nations leaders, campaigners, diplomats and politicians of all stripes and areas of Canada were counted among them.

From the moment the ceremony began there was no doubt that this was to be a very political event, not just because of its guest list, but because this ceremony, planned by Layton and his family as his illness progressed, a clear message was being sent to Canada: social justice is important, Canadians want it, and Canada is capable of achieving that goal.

The funeral began with music, then a blessing by Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo, who presented Olivia Chow with a white eagle feather, which represented leadership. Readings from the Koran and the Bible followed. Reverent Brent Hawkes led the ceremony wearing academic robes -- an acknowledgement, he said of the many faiths followed by those attending the ceremony. In the homily, he exhorted Canadians to work toward a more inclusive, generous Canada.

The ceremony delivered the expected. Moving eulogies and tributes to the work and life of a man who influenced politics in Canada, and Canada's largest city, for most of his adult life. It went beyond offering solace to all those who are grieving. It was a rally in support of social democracy.

Speakers from Stephen Lewis to Shawn Atleo to Rev. Hawkes spoke of Layton's commitment to his work and told the crowd gathered in the hall and those watching on screens in parks scattered around Toronto's downtown that there is a responsibility to be shouldered. In the words of Rev. Hawkes, "the torch has been passed." Canadians need to carry the movement for social justice onward.

Again and again, the mourners cheered and applauded, notably as Lewis spoke of Layton's now famous letter as a manifesto for social democracy.

The speakers at the event made no apologies for their belief in social justice causes. Rev. Hawkes, a well-known gay rights activist, focused on the need for Canadians to listen to each other and to care for their families. He took the opportunity to rib Prime Minister Stephen Harper, saying that Canadians should ask:

"Brent, how's John?" referring to his own partner, and how Canadians should ask after each other's families. He then looked to the Prime Minister.

"Prime Minister, how is Laureen?" he asked before continuing his homily.

Again and again, speakers mentioned Layton's energy, his ability to listen, his dreams for social justice in Canada, and his belief that Canada can grow into a more inclusive, generous country. Speakers also took time to gaze toward the future -- looking to NDP popularity in Quebec as a reflection of Layton's charisma, but also the possibility that progressive values in Quebec will draw other parts of Canada to think the same way in future elections. Karl Belanger, NDP press secretary for Quebec, spoke about how he was a rare bird -- an NDP Quebecer before the election -- but that things certainly had changed, a comment greeted by laughter from the crowd.

Rev. Hawkes summed it up with his Benediction: "Go forth knowing that God's blessings will go before you and that God will keep you. God's face will shine upon you and be gracious unto you and God will grant you peace. In your going out and in your coming in, in your lying down and in your rising up, in your labour and in your leisure, in your laughter and in your tears. Until that day when there is no dawning and no sunset, no death and no disease. And now remember these words. Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world."

Looks like we have some work to do.

Meagan Perry is the rabble podcast network's executive producer, and covered the state funeral of Jack Layton for rabble.ca.

 

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