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People pay their respects at a vigil for Jack Layton at Nathan Phillips Square prior to the funeral of the late NDP leader in Toronto on Saturday, August 27, 2011. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
People pay their respects at a vigil for Jack Layton at Nathan Phillips Square prior to the funeral of the late NDP leader in Toronto on Saturday, August 27, 2011. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Marcus Gee

Toronto has never seen anything quite like Layton tributes at City Hall Add to ...

If only he could have seen it. Watching the memorial to Jack Layton unfold at City Hall on Friday, it was hard not to think, “God, he would have loved this.”

Not just because hundreds upon hundreds of people came to praise him, but because they came pledging to carry on his crusade of caring and hope. For that was the mood among the crowds that thronged the spare expanse of Nathan Phillips Square and lined up around the soaring modernist sculpture that is Toronto City Hall.

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“The whole nation is moved and inspired. We have a big energy in our hearts,” said Nobuko McNie, 59, a supply teacher who crouched to write a memorial message on a big orange tarp. “And we really have to use this energy now to change our world.”

On any other day, that might have sounded trite. Not on this day. The energy and optimism that Mr. Layton exuded in life was palpable among those who came to honour him.

People started lining up while it was still dark to be first to file past the flag-draped coffin in City Hall’s marble rotunda. By noon, the queue extended all the way around the building. They were passing the casket at a rate of more than 400 an hour.

Outside in the square, what can only be described as a happening was under way. Scores of people milled around, reading the messages scrawled in coloured chalk on the paving stones, writing messages themselves, taking pictures of the impromptu shrine piled with flowers. The city has never seen anything quite like it.

Mr. Layton would have loved the so-Toronto diversity of the crowd: a businessman in pin stripes, a chic teenager with sunglasses pushed back onto her hijab, a Sikh in white turban and grey beard, a mother with sleeping toddlers in a double stroller. Late in the afternoon, a group arrived wearing bright orange T-shirts reading: “Thank you, Jack. Tamil Canadians.” He would have loved that.

He would have loved the fact that people climbed up to take in the view from City Hall’s new green roof, an echo of his insistent environmentalism. He would have loved that, when his casket was brought in on Thursday night, cyclists greeted it by ringing their bike bells. He would love that so many came wearing articles of NDP orange: hats, scarves, ties, buttons, even finger-nail polish.

Above all, he would have loved the hopeful tenor of the messages on the pavement. “You were so close to winning something incredible for the country. It’s not over yet!!!!” said one. “Let's harness the positive energy we are feeling and use it to carry on where Jack left off,” said another. By the end of the day, the messages covered the square from end to end. One wag wrote “trustache” beside a big drawing of Mr. Layton’s trademark mustache.

Of course, there was sadness, too. Many cried openly as they paused in front of Mr. Layton’s casket. Others crossed themselves, held a hand to heart or made an Asian bow with folded hands. City hall assigned a young woman to offer tissues from a box.

Even Mayor Rob Ford, at opposite poles in his politics from Mr. Layton, seemed moved. He remembered how, when he was a nervous freshman city councillor of 29, Mr. Layton told him simply: “Stand up, say what you believe in and sit down.”

There were more tears when Mr. Layton’s widow, Olivia Chow, the picture of grace and poise throughout this ordeal, left the rotunda to greet the people in line, some waiting for two hours or more. She took some in her arms, squeezing them as they wept. She spoke quietly to others and clasped their hands between hers, as if she had become the consoler, they the consoled.

Jack’s grown children, Mike and Sarah, made their way along the line, too – Mike so much like his father in his openness, decency and earnest enthusiasm. Seeing the line of people winding around the building, Sarah said: “It’s like a hug around City Hall.”

Why did Mr. Layton’s death touch Canadians so deeply? Some talked about how he was cut down so abruptly at the moment of his greatest triumph. Others spoke of his consistent fight for the disadvantaged. Almost everyone talked about his message of hope over fear, a cliché that somehow rang true when coming from a man of such sincerity.

Even nature seemed to buy it. What began as a grey morning became a perfect late-summer afternoon under a dome of blue sky. As the day drew to a close, the soft, slanting light of evening made the wall marked with messages at the east end of the square seem to glow. Jack would have loved it.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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