As I looked across University Avenue and Queen Street I could see a sea of people peppered with orange to celebrate the colours of New Democratic Party (NDP) and pay their respects to its recently deceased leader, Jack Layton.
I was with my toddler and I promised him a parade of sorts. Without understanding, he managed to behave himself as we waited for Jack Layton's casket to pass us by. When I say "managed to behave," I mean the toddler wasn't trying to self-annihilate for a long stretch of time, which was a huge success. I think he could tell the momentous occasion, the excited (not somber) mood around us as people waited and waited. He sat on the curb and vibrated, occasionally showing his belly off to the public when the mood struck him. To his left there was a woman carrying a poster, which read "Solidarity" and I was struck by this word because that's what was happening on the street in that moment -- solidarity. A bittersweet event. Here we were, all together, waiting to say goodbye to the guy most people referred to as "Jack," which is what happens when people feel that the person is real, even if we've only seen this person in papers or on the screen. So, Jack was Jack and we were saying goodbye to Jack.
In my 17 years in Canada I've never been to an occasion like this where so many people gathered to celebrate a politician. I understand this was a state funeral so that was a draw, but there was also almost a week of preceding events, a spontaneous showcasing of support and love such as messages scribbled in chalk all over Nathan Phillips Square, the candlelight vigil on the Parliament Hill in Ottawa, candle light vigils in the windows of Toronto homes, the massive media coverage -- people were getting together to celebrate the life of the man who led NDP to become the Official Opposition in the House of Commons for the first time in Canadian history. And we were also celebrating something else -- Jack's message of hope and optimism.
I've always voted NDP so I'm perhaps biased, but my support of the party reflects my sentiment for what I grew up with: a pro-democratic movement that began in 1980 and managed to topple communism in 1989. I come from the country that had its own Jack, complete with defiant moustache and charisma, though ours was called Lech and his revolution was much more bloody. You could say I have a soft spot for the guys who stir the s*it in politics, especially the guys who are pro workers' right and support social, educational and environmental programs.
As a young child I was obsessed with being allowed to partake in the Labour Day celebrations that, although originally conceived to support ideologies that I'm in favour of now, were just pompous Soviet Bloc propaganda-spreading parades where children with red ties were forced to wave red flags with the hammer and sickle. My parents, thankfully, were so cruel that they forbade me to go and I had to console myself with leftover flags brought over by friends whose parents were nicer than mine, obviously (and liked to kiss big Soviet ass).
I'm glad that I waited to pick my political flavours. Years later, when I was in Solidarność-supported division of Girl Scouts, my parents finally allowed me to go to gatherings that had political agendas. We would get together at special assemblies to subtly mark our support for the ongoing Round Table discussions between the old government and the opposition groups. We sang songs, we talked about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising a lot, the older kids talked about its symbolism in terms of ongoing political situation in Poland. At the time I liked being a part of these gatherings for three reasons: because I liked the singing, because I was thrilled for our Girl Scout unit to have been kicked out of the elementary school when our alliances came to light, and also because I was full of the thrill that comes from feeling truly hopeful, the hope that things could change for the better.
The reason why I was allowed to go was because the world felt safer already. The old government was pretty much done -- my parents could see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel; optimism was soaring ahead of any difficulties that follow a major change.
Layton's final message to Canadians calls, among many other things, for hope. He wrote, "Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic." As the four police motorcycles slowly opened the funeral procession, led by horse-mounted police, followed by pipe and drum bands, and an honour guard, then finally the hearse with Jack's casket inside, the people broke out into a thunderous applause and I grabbed my toddler and lifted him to see better, to see how the messenger of hope brings people together and how his message builds a feeling of solidarity.