08/25/2011 09:30 EDT | Updated 10/25/2011 05:12 EDT

Jack Layton Funeral: Coffin Headed To Quebec, Toronto Later Thursday


OTTAWA - Cannon fire crashed over Parliament Hill and car horns sounded a noisy tribute along the Highway of Heroes on Thursday as a cortege ferried Jack Layton's coffin from the pinnacle of his political career to the place where it all began.

After a 15-gun sendoff outside the House of Commons and a symbolic trip across the Ottawa River to Quebec, the province of his birth, the late NDP leader arrived home in Toronto, the adoptive city that has embraced him as a favourite son.

Dozens of people, many ringing bells or honking the horns on their bicycles, were on hand as the hearse arrived at Toronto City Hall late Thursday. They broke into spontaneous applause and cheered and the motorcade slowed to a halt, and again when a Toronto police honour guard carried Layton's coffin into city hall.

Amid the applause some were heard shouting "we love you, Jack," and "welcome home."

The journey to Toronto took place along a stretch of highway now famous for the solemn vigils that would spring up every time a member of the Canadian Forces was killed in Afghanistan. This time, however, they were on hand to salute a political soldier.

"It's becoming a thing, this highway," said 58-year-old Don Rayment of Kingston, Ont., one of about 60 people gathered on an overpass to watch Layton's hearse pass by.

"I think it's a good thing that we do this. It shows our humanity and it helps us experience our humanity, to sort of exercise it, to see the best in other people and to join them."

A Layton campaign sign from the last election — the one that gave the NDP its best-ever showing — hung from the guard rail. A Maple Leaf flag waved overhead.

People cheered and waved as the procession approached, while cars heading down the highway in the opposite direction honked their expressions of respect.

And in a flash, the cortege was past and gone.

The fact that Layton was an ardent opponent of Canada's mission in Afghanistan was not lost on the crowd.

"That was his view — he deserves, and his family deserves, that respect," said Paul Carl, 43, a veteran of several repatriation ceremonies.

"It's not that we're giving the honour to the soldiers, we are giving the honour to him."

At another overpass near Oshawa about 10 people turned out as the motorcade went by. Two were holding an orange sign that read: ”Jack you will be missed.”

Oshawa resident Peter Davey, 62, expressed dismay that more people didn't show up to bid Jack farewell.

"He was an everyday man," said Davey. "This is an NDP town. So where are all of his supporters?"

Oshawa, which is heavily populated by unionized, working-class people, was once home to former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent.

Earlier, a 15-gun salute crashed over Parliament Hill and a lone piper played as eight scarlet-clad RCMP officers carried the coffin from the foyer of the House of Commons to the door under the Peace Tower and out into the humid August sunshine.

The bells of the tower carillon pealed out "O Canada", John Lennon's evocative "Imagine" and finally, "The Dominion March", a piece composed by Layton's grandfather.

Waves of applause ran through a crowd of several hundred onlookers as the funeral procession rolled off.

Layton's flag-draped coffin spent nearly two days in the Commons foyer — a familiar haunt for the NDP leader, who would habitually bound out of the Commons after question period to speak to journalists at the very same spot.

Widow Olivia Chow, Layton's son Mike and daughter Sarah and granddaughter Beatrice strolled through the crowd thanking people for coming out. They paused before a makeshift memorial that sprang up beside the Centennial Flame.

It include countless orange flowers, hard-written cards and posters. There was a misspelled note in a child's crayon scrawl: "Happy Afterlife Jack Laton."

Chow opened some of the cards and smiled as she read the messages. She picked up a ball of orange modeling clay and rolled it in her palm, saying she would give it to Beatrice who by then was snoozing on her father's shoulder.

People also chalked messages on the stone walkway around the Flame:

"Thank you for giving us hope."

"Jack, who will save us now?"

"The best prime minister Canada never had."

Thousands of mourners had passed the sombre scene in the two days the coffin lay in state.

The funeral cortege left Parliament Hill for a brief pass by the Museum of Civilization just over the river in Gatineau, Que. The Layton family requested the Quebec detour as a mark of respect for the province, Layton's birthplace.

"It's another symbolism, another example of how deeply rooted Jack Layton was in Quebec," said Gatineau MP Francoise Boivin, one of the 59 New Democrats elected in the province on May 2.

There were several hundred people waiting outside the museum as the cortege rolled past many waved small Canadian and Quebec flags. As the hearse rolled away, 61 white doves were released, one for each year of Layton's life.

The car and its police escort then drove by Gatineau City Hall before swinging south to take Layton home to Toronto, the city where he built a power base over two decades in municipal politics before he entered the Commons.

Layton will lie in repose at Toronto's City Hall before a state funeral Saturday at Roy Thomson Hall.

Stephen Lewis, scion of a legendary NDP family, former ambassador to the United Nations and long known as a spell-binding orator, is to deliver the eulogy.

The funeral will mark the end of official mourning and the serious start to the NDP's effort to find a new leader.

Many in the party have been reluctant to talk openly about the leadership while the funeral rites unfolded, but the campaign will begin in earnest next week.

Thomas Mulcair, the party's abrasive deputy leader, is seen by many to have an inside track, given that he and 58 other Quebec MPs form a majority of the caucus.

However, insiders say party president Brian Topp is getting encouragement from influential quarters to join the race. Topp was one of the architects of Layton's success and was among the last of Layton's tight-knit inner circle to speak with him before his death.

Layton raised the leadership issue in a death-bed, open letter to Canadians, released just hours after he died. Topp, along with Chow and Layton's chief of staff, Anne McGrath, helped him compose the letter two days before he died.

In it, Layton urged the party to choose a replacement as soon as possible in the new year. That would allow his successor almost four years to put his or her stamp on the party before the next election.

The party's federal council is expected to meet the first week of September to start the leadership process, with a vote likely in mid-January.

— With files from Stephanie Levitz in Kingston, Ont.