12/27/2011 04:57 EST | Updated 02/26/2012 05:12 EST

The Biggest Story of 2011 for Me? The Crowds That Came to Say Goodbye


The thought seemed simple enough -- head over to Nathan Phillips Square and take some time to thank the people who were waiting in the long lines to say goodbye to Jack. In the lead up to the state funeral, Jack Layton's body been moved from Parliament Hill to Toronto City Hall. But the solemnity of the moment was overwhelmed by the enormity of the public outpouring. City Hall was awash with orange balloons, flowers, chalk slogans, and tens of thousands of well-wishers. The lineup seemed to go on forever.

As I started to walk the line I was overwhelmed by the diversity of people -- Tamils, Sikhs, rural folk, Quebecois, urbanites. There were people who knew Jack from his City Hall days and other folks who had never had expressed a public political thought in their lives. They were there because like me, they felt there was no place else they could be at this time.

When I arrived at City Hall I found that numerous members of my caucus were already walking the lines. I joined them, hugging and thanking and talking to the people who waited patiently in the hot sun. It had been this way for days since Jack had died. I still couldn't believe he was gone.

I first worked with him during the long and bitter Adams Mine garbage wars. At the time, he was a Toronto city councillor and I was a musician-turned-community organizer. We worked together with First Nations and blue-collar folks in northern Ontario to forge a force strong enough to stop the largest dump project in Canadian history. A lot of folks had written us off as a lost cause. Not Jack. He believed that we would ultimately win because it was the right thing. And despite the massive odds, we did win, just as he knew we would.

A few years later, when Jack told me he was running for the leader of the New Democratic Party, I signed up immediately. Next thing I knew, against my better judgment, Jack had talked me into running for federal office.

I had faith in Jack. I don't know how many times the pundits wrote his political obituary. But he was never thrown off by the naysayers or the cynics. It just wasn't in his DNA.

And in the election of 2011, Jack again had proven them all wrong. The Orange Crush obliterated the Bloc and left the natural governing party a disorganized rump. But now that he finally had the chance to show what he could do, he was dead.

It seemed so tragic, so bloody unfair.

And what about the 103 MPs who were Jack's team? Jack was the one who had knitted this broad and unwieldy team together. Now he was gone. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter. Grief has a way of either tearing people apart or bringing them together. We hardly knew each other. We were especially raw. It was the crowds that healed us and brought us together.

Like many of my colleagues, I began to sense a dramatic shift in the mood. What began as an outpouring of grief had morphed into a positive assertion of Canadian identity. Jack had seen a better Canada beyond the political horizon. In his deathbed farewell, he pointed to this Canada and Canadians of all walks of life, backgrounds, and political beliefs had responded.

Our new caucus saw this national consensus emerging -- face-by-face, handshake-by-handshake. We saw in the crowds an attempt to articulate truths that we all aspire to make true.

"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."

Political memories are notoriously unreliable. In the months and years to come, there will be a tendency to downplay the significance of Nathan Phillips Square. No doubt the wise ones will write off the unprecedented outpouring for Jack as little more than a warm hug, time-out from the realpolitik of Canadian politics. But don't believe it for a moment.

Canadians aren't dupes. They took to the streets because, as much as they were saying goodbye, they were also sending a message, perhaps even a warning. They expect Canada to be a better country than it is. They expect politicians to represent a higher standard of idealism and engagement. This is the message our caucus learned from the lines of mourners. It's a message no politician from any stripe should disregard.