When he stepped down to battle cancer in June, New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton promised he would return to Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
He did return this week, but not in the way he or anyone intended.
The remains of the beloved statesman and Member of Parliament lay in state in Ottawa on August 24 and 25 before being transported to City Hall in Toronto, where he would stay until his state funeral on Saturday.
In an unprecedented gesture, Prime Minister Stephen Harper granted a state funeral to the politician who swept his party to prominence in the May 2 election, ousting the Liberal Party from its long-held slot as official opposition. It is the first time the head of the opposition has been given a state funeral.
“When I last spoke with Jack following his announcement in July, I wished him well and he told me he’d be seeing me in the House of Commons in the Fall,” Harper said in a statement at the August 22 news that Layton had died of cancer at age 61. “This, sadly, will no longer come to pass.”
In Ottawa, a line of thousands snaked for blocks as people flocked to pay tribute to Layton, whose body lay in state in the House of Commons. Aboriginals felt the loss keenly.
“On Monday when I heard what happened, I realized how much I’d depended on his voice there and how much he spoke for aboriginal issues,” mourner Sebastian Printup told the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN). “Now without his voice there I don’t see anything there that will fill that gap anytime soon.”
All week tributes have poured in from Canada’s aboriginal leaders, who viewed Layton as something of a champion for their rights.
“Jack understood the challenges of poverty and was determined to give voice to all struggles including our struggle for fairness, equity and justice,” Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said in a statement. “Jack had such a unique ability to connect with and listen to people. Jack was accessible to everyone. We all grew to quickly appreciate his deep sincerity in supporting our issues in the best way possible. Jack will be greatly missed by First Nation leaders across this country and by so many Canadians. He was a remarkable and inspirational leader for all peoples.”
A statement from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami pointed out Layton’s support of health care and social services investment and his belief in partnering with Inuit in Arctic issues.
“Jack Layton was a remarkable Canadian,” said ITK President Mary Simon, who said she was deeply saddened. “With his passing, Inuit have lost a friend and advocate.”
The Métis National Council, too, issued a statement.
“This is a big loss for all Canadians—Mr. Layton’s optimism, leadership and ability to engage the citizens of Canada will be missed,” Métis National Council President Clément Chartier said. “He was focused on the people of this country, worked diligently to share his vision, and brought the New Democratic Party of Canada into prominence—it is unfortunate that he will not have the opportunity to experience the change in Canada that he was able to ignite.”
Chief Gilbert W. Whiteduck called Layton “a man of integrity and vision who understood the many struggles facing First Nations in Canada” in a statement from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation.
“Mr. Layton was the only leader representing a national Federal party that stated that the Parliament of Canada and the City of Ottawa was established on Algonquin Territory,” Whiteduck said. “He had the courage to speak and walk the truth. Mr. Layton will be missed.”
“Jack was looked at as a friend to the people of Nishnawbe Aski,” said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy. “He was a strong leader that understood the social struggles facing First Nations.”
The Chiefs of Ontario noted Layton’s unifying strength.
“Mr. Layton would consistently call attention to the poverty experienced by First Nations communities and the need to take concrete action to address this problem,” said Chief Angus Toulouse. “He sought to ensure that his concerns were shared by all Canadians—to essentially show people that the problems of one segment of society are really the problems of the whole.”
When meeting with Layton last fall, Toulouse said, “I was impressed by his commitment to First Nations issues and his sincerity. His dedication to achieving true reconciliation between the settler peoples and the original peoples of this country were hallmarks of his advocacy efforts.”