POLITICS
08/26/2011 04:00 EDT | Updated 10/25/2011 05:12 EDT

Jack Layton Funeral: 'Conscience Of Toronto' Returns Home, Funeral Saturday

AP

TORONTO - After two days lying in state in the crucible of Canadian democracy, Jack Layton is back in the adoptive city that gave life to his long, ascendant political career.

A police guard carried his casket into Toronto's City Hall, where he served as councillor beginning in 1982, so he can lie in repose pending his state funeral Saturday.

The NDP leader's body arrived in Toronto on Thursday evening from Ottawa, where the flag-draped coffin lay in state in the Commons foyer.

Thousands of people are expected to pay their personal respects in Toronto over the next two days, among them those that quickly restored scores of chalked tributes washed away by a storm on Wednesday night.

"Jack was the conscience of Toronto," former city mayor Mel Lastman told The Canadian Press.

"He would push like hell. He wasn't the kind of guy who went for the throat. He stuck to the issues."

Those issues, many of them far from populist, included advocating for the homeless — a subject on which he would gain a national profile — and pushing for the rights of those with HIV and gays in the city.

A committed environmentalist, he was a familiar sight on his bicycle and is credited with places to lock bikes on city streets and bike lanes. He helped get curbside recycling going.

Layton, who died of cancer Monday, persuaded Lastman to change his mind and reject a proposal to sweep the homeless off the streets by arresting them.

"He cared about the city — he really did," Lastman said.

But it's a city that did not always support either his political views or aspirations.

In 1991, for example, Layton's bid for mayor fizzled badly, forcing him temporarily from local politics.

He tried in 1993 and again in 1997 as an NDP candidate for a seat in the House of Commons but on both occasions, voters in the downtown Toronto riding snubbed him.

It was only in 2004, more than a year after he became leader of the federal New Democrats, that voters in Toronto grudgingly awarded him his coveted seat in Parliament.

From there, Layton began steadily increasing the party's popularity, if not immediately its electoral fortunes.

In fact, Lastman said, Layton only finally came into his own as he, recovering from prostate cancer and hip surgery, campaigned for the May federal election wielding a cane.

"That guy really showed a lot of himself when he came out there that sick," Lastman said.

"You don't see leaders of the opposition or the prime minister being themselves. They're all hiding."

The result was the historic NDP breakthrough in becoming Official Opposition for the first time.

"I don't think voters recognized Jack until he became the leader of the opposition," Lastman said.

Born in Montreal and raised in Hudson, Que., Layton's family moved to Toronto in 1970. He studied political science and became a professor at Ryerson University and began a career of activism.

After winning a council seat in 1982, he quickly rose to prominence as an outspoken left-wing councillor who known for his unkempt hair and blue jeans. He also served for three years on what was then Metro Council.

He opted for a more corporate image for his losing mayoralty bid in 1991 after which he temporarily returned to academia, but politics was in his blood.

Current Toronto Mayor Rob Ford credits Layton with his own political successes, saying the late politician taught him everything he knows about City Hall.

In death, if not always in life, the people rallied behind him.

"You were Toronto. You were Canada," read one prominent chalk graffiti outside City Hall.

"You stood with the weak and the masses stood with you."

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press