Days before Jack Layton announced he was stepping aside for cancer treatment in late July, he called in a pastor to begin planning his funeral. The two men discussed a service – now scheduled for Saturday afternoon – that would be less a lament for Mr. Layton than an occasion to inspire others to pursue his ideals.
When Rev. Brent Hawkes arrived for the first of four meetings in mid-July, Mr. Layton was still confident, promising to fight his illness and plan his return to the NDP Leader’s office. But Rev. Hawkes, who will lead Saturday’s state funeral at Roy Thomson Hall, told The Globe and Mail he was also allowing for a measure of pragmatism.
“That’s the way we approached it: this was good to get done, and good to have these conversations, and hopefully, they wouldn’t be needed,” he said on Wednesday. “But unfortunately they are.”
As officiant, Dr. Hawkes will utter the funeral service’s last words, and he knows just what Mr. Layton wanted him to convey. He leaves the task of eulogizing Mr. Layton to Stephen Lewis, a former Ontario NDP leader known for his work galvanizing interest in the HIV/AIDS problem in Africa.
Instead, Dr. Hawkes will tackle spiritual issues surrounding death and life – “what I call the churchy part” – although the service is intended to be religiously and politically inclusive, and will have readings from Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions.
He also has “a couple” of specific messages Mr. Layton asked him to deliver, which he is keeping to himself. “That needs to be part of what happens that day, and I think you will understand once you hear them,” he said.
Lastly, he has been charged with discussing “where we go from here” with more than 2,600 people who will fill the hall, and many more watching elsewhere.
“Part of my role is to talk about the need to pass the torch, the need to take up those causes, the need to make the country a better country and the world a better world, and that that’s all of our responsibility both individually and working together,” Dr. Hawkes said.
Mr. Layton has been having such conversations for many years with Dr. Hawkes, whose congregation at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto welcomes the LGBT community. They were frequent allies on issues such as gay rights, health and homelessness, and Mr. Layton and his wife, Olivia Chow, attended Christmas Eve and Pride Day services annually.
Dr. Hawkes found Mr. Layton’s desire to fight for those who needed an advocate one of his most enduring and endearing qualities.
“He’s just been there, again and again and again. In the early days of HIV/AIDS, when no politicians would pay attention to us and it was difficult to get funding, there would be Jack, fighting at the Board of Health for funding,” he said.
In keeping with Mr. Layton’s often cheerful demeanour, parts of the service are expected to be joyous, and laced with music from artists such as Parachute Club member Lorraine Segato and Quebec singer Martin Deschamps, as well as the choir from Dr. Hawkes’s church.
And even before the federal government granted Mr. Layton a state funeral, the ceremony was designed for a public audience, in the same spirit as the letter the political leader wrote to Canadians three days before he died. Ms. Chow has insisted the public be given as much space as possible, and invited guests are expected to fill only about half of the hall. Screens in the adjacent David Pecaut Square will broadcast the service to overflow crowds.
Organizers expect large crowds at the funeral, following an outpouring of grief and thanks expressed in sprawling flower memorials, condolences scrawled out in books at MPs’ constituency offices, and on walls and pavements filled with chalk messages.
Dr. Hawkes believes the public outcry reflects Mr. Layton’s talent for connecting quickly with so many people he met, showing he had listened by remembering a spouse’s name, or earning the trust of someone he hardly knew.
“You know, you could meet Jack once or work with him for years and feel like he heard you, he saw you,” he said. “He had that unique ability.”
The last chat the two men had was private, and ended shortly before 6 p.m. on Sunday, the night before Mr. Layton died. Even then, though less optimistic, Mr. Layton was not entirely ready to say goodbye, Dr. Hawkes said.
“I think he knew [his struggle]was getting more difficult.”