During the 17 months of the COVID pandemic that we’ve lived so far, there have been so many moments when so many of us have commented that time seems to be moving so fast. We’ve all had those moments, when either something that happened just prior to COVID comes up and it feels like it happened an eternity before. It’s been a discombobulating part of these past months and this pandemic.
But on days like these, even in this pandemic, I have a hard time believing it’s been so long with some things. That was the case back on May 2nd, when we hit the 10-year anniversary of Jack Layton leading the NDP to our greatest heights ever. As I pointed out about that night, “at the time we didn’t know what was to come”. We surely didn’t know that before the end of that summer Jack would no longer be with us. Yet that was how quickly things did happen.
This period is so etched into the stone of my memory, probably because of the effect this had on me personally. I remember watching Jack’s press conference in July with my colleagues, announcing he was stepping aside to fight the return of that bastardly cancer. We were all brought together that July afternoon, because Jack wanted us to know before it went to the media (that’s how he was). We had been through this before, during his first cancer diagnosis in 2010 so when we came into that room, we were confident that he would beat this too, just like before.
The thing I remember the most about that press conference was his voice; I barely recognized him. I just remember how that shook me and how it confirmed that this time was different. From that time forward, we all knew the gravity of the fight that Jack was in. Deep down we probably all knew what it meant, but we weren’t focused on that; Jack had beaten cancer before, and he would again.
The morning of August 22, 2021, started like any normal Monday morning in the summer on Parliament Hill. I got into my office a bit after 8 am and started my usual morning routine; checking my emails, doing a quick media scan, seeing what priorities had to be dealt with that day. As a part of that, I turned on the TV in my office, which was already tuned to CBC News Network. While I was doing that, I remember glancing out of the corner of my eye at the TV and seeing Peter Mansbridge there. I thought that was odd, because what was Mansbridge doing on at 8 am on a sleep August Monday morning? He would only do that unless it was something big. It was only then that I finally focused on the chyron at the bottom on the screen and it all made sense.
I sat in my chair, stunned, sobbing, devastated in the moment. Everything stopped and I didn’t know what to do. I called my boss and when I got him on the phone, he was also sobbing. He had already gotten the news too and he was also trying to process it all. What happened next was the start of a week in my life I’ll never forget. My colleague and friend Andrea decided to get access to our caucus room in the Centre Block and get some coffee, tea, water and some things to nibble on for people to come together and talk. We didn’t want to go home, we wanted to be around our friends and colleagues (both old and new), and just talk about Jack. We sat in the Official Opposition caucus room sharing stories about our experiences with Jack, our own stories and it was a comforting moment. Later we heard that a memorial was building around the Eternal Flame, and we slowly trickled outside to join in.
It was a strange week because we were asked to continue certain things “as usual”, which for me included the opening of my boss’s constituency office in Val d’Or. I still remember going out for lunch with my boss and new riding colleagues. It was a Wednesday and there was a TV playing in the background with Radio-Canada on, showing the start of Jack laying in state in the Centre Block. It was a moment that was as strange as it was painful. It was strange because I saw all these people walking up to his flag-covered coffin, like happens in these times. But these weren’t nameless strangers to me; these were my colleagues & friends. These were people who I have known for a fair amount of time and while to everyone else in the room these were just those nameless faces, it clearly was different for me. It was painful because in that moment, I just wanted to be there with them. It felt wrong to be where I was and not there. I don’t know how else to explain it, but that’s how I felt.
Later that week came the state funeral in Toronto, and I got to see firsthand just how Jack had affected others too. I drove into Toronto the Friday before, staying with a friend downtown. I woke up that morning and started to get into my dress clothes, only to realize that I had somehow grabbed the wrong dress shirt, which didn’t come close to fitting. I was freaking out, and quickly rushed out in a panic to try to find one. I ended up at the Sears in the Eaton Centre, frantically trying to find something, anything that would fit. I’m not a small man, and normally finding dress close in a regular department store just doesn’t work out.
A gentleman working at Sears noticed me and offered to help. I explained my situation and that I needed anything he had that would fit on me. It was strange because once I mentioned I was going to Jack’s funeral, stories started to pour out as he dutifully dug through shirts trying to find something that would work. It took twenty minutes, and we shared stories about Jack. It was oddly comforting, just hearing from this random stranger in this moment, not only helping me but understanding why I was in my state. Eventually he found one shirt, one and only, that would fit me. It was a rose-pink dress shirt, which somehow felt right in the moment. We saw each other off, but that stuck with me.
Then later when my boss and I went to City Hall for our visitation with Jack, it was sobering to see the mass of people lined up to see him, to see ever square inch of available concrete covered in beautiful chalk art, and to see people sharing their stories. The rest of the day felt like that, people sharing their stories, experiences and how Jack touched their lives. Where earlier in the week I felt a bit alone in my grief, in that moment I felt more like I was in a common community of people who all had been touched deep down by Jack. That feeling continued inside Roy Thomson Hall during the funeral, as we listened to more people talk about how Jack touched them. They brought us to our feet in cheers of love and admiration, and then to tears of sorrow and sadness. When Steven Page sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, I broke down in my seat overlooking the scene and cried uncontrollably. It was such a release of emotion, as I looked around through my blurred vision to see others doing the same. It was alright, because we were all feeling the same.
There are few things I can remember so clearly after so much time, yet that week won’t go anywhere. Neither will the impact that Jack had on me, my life, my family and our country. Jack’s last words sit framed in my bedroom, as I see them every morning as a reminder of how we should be to one another and how much better we can be. My daughter is now at an age where she asks about those words and the man behind them. I know I’m not the only one having that experience with their children, and to me that’s part of the Layton legacy.
Even though he never formed government, he showed the effect that anyone can have in our public life when given the chance. Today I’m going to resist the urge to think about “what ifs” and instead will reflect on what did happen and what Jack did do to make our country better. Marsee Jack for everything, we continue to fight for that better Canada that you were working so hard to lead us towards. Let’s continue to strive to uphold his spirit, his vision and become the best we can be.
“My friends, 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.”Source: Jack Layton’s Last letter to canadians, August 20, 2011