With a blessing bestowed by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, Canada began its final farewell to New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton.
"Please accept my condolences and the condolences from so many indigenous people from coast to coast to coast," said Atleo, clad in traditional attire, before invoking the ancestors and turning to address the maple-leaf-draped casket. “We speak directly to the spirit, expressing the highest regard for a close family member, which is how so many of us feel.”
Then in a clear, lilting tenor he chanted a blessing "that helps purify this space," shaking a sacred thunderbird rattle and finishing with the words, “with this chant our peoples express our thanks and gratitude.”
Afterward he presented a white eagle feather to Layton’s widow, fellow Member of Parliament Olivia Chow, explaining its significance as the highest symbol of respect and leadership.
"Jack was a such man of the people,” Atleo said.
Aboriginal leaders were among those who had come to pay respects during the days that the leader of the country’s official opposition party lay in state in both Ottawa and Toronto after his August 22 death at age 61 from cancer. At Toronto City Hall, where he was from Thursday through Saturday morning, the thousands who lined up for hours to file past and wish him well included Ojibway Chief Shining Turtle of the Whitefish River First Nation, CBC News reported. In Ottawa the niece of William Commanda, the recently deceased Algonquin elder, visited, according to APTN.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, head of the Conservative government that came to majority in the May 2 election, the same one in which Layton swept his party to prominence over the Liberals, attended the funeral. He had granted Layton a state funeral in an unprecedented gesture—no other official Opposition leader had ever been sent off in such a fashion.
Music played a huge role in the service, with Steven Page flying in mid-tour, between two performances, to sing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and longtime Layton friend Lorraine Segato closing out the service with a rousing rendition of “Rise Up” that had the 2,500 attendees clapping, at her insistence. Throughout, the Choir of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, which Layton attended, sang as well.
Uplifting speeches and song were the order of the day, from the moving tribute by longtime friend Stephen Lewis, the former U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and current chair of an eponymous foundation, to touching eulogies from Layton’s son and daughter. All spoke not only of Layton the man, but of his message of peace and solidarity to create a better world.
Layton’s final letter to Canadians, written two days before his death, was “at its heart, a manifesto for social democracy,” Lewis said in his eulogy. The remark drew a standing ovation, including from Harper and Governor General David Johnston, who also attended along with numerous other dignitaries.
Sarah Layton remembered him fondly as finding time to have a tea party on the floor with Beatrice, her toddler daughter. Both she and her brother Michael recalled both his fatherly devotion and his universal words of wisdom.
“You can wait forever for the perfect conditions,” he said his father told him. “Or you can make the best of the conditions you have now.”
Spiritual observances ranged from Atleo’s blessing to a reading from the Koran by Tasleem Riaz of the Asian Communities Council of Canada, a nonprofit organization that works mainly with Pakistanis.
The Reverend Brent Hawkes, wearing secular robes to respect the variety of religions present, conducted the service and revealed that Layton had sketched its outline and themes himself during his last days, hoping it would not have to be used so soon.
“I asked him how churchy I could get,” said Hawkes. “He said, “go for it.’ ”
He talked about the whys of untimely death but said, "the reality is not ‘Why?’ but ‘What now?’ "
Distinguished guests included former prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin; George Tuccaro, Douglas Phillips and Edna Elias, commissioners of the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut, respectively; and premiers or their representatives from the provinces.
Canadians nationwide mourned the fallen leader, gathering from Vancouver and Edmonton to New Brunswick and Newfoundland for memorial services and to view the funeral that was broadcast live on CBC News, as well as streamed on the Web.
In Toronto, thousands lined the route of the funeral procession as it zig-zagged through town between City Hall and Roy Thomson Hall, where the service was held. They applauded and chanted, “Thank you Jack,” as the hearse went by. Chow and Layton’s children, Michael and Sarah, walked behind. Hundreds more watched the funeral on large screens from David Pecaut Square, just outside the hall.
Meanwhile, outside City Hall, chalk tributes that had begun to appear on the slate ground of Nathan Phillips Square filled the plaza by the end of the week.
As the hearse pulled away from Thomson hall for Layton’s final journey, Chow was still clutching the eagle feather Atleo had given her.