To Canada, he was Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party.
But in Toronto-Danforth, he was just Jack.
The outpouring of grief that rippled across the country after Layton’s battle with cancer ended Aug. 22 has been felt perhaps most in his home riding, which he represented politically for 17 years.
Days after Layton’s state funeral at Roy Thomson Hall, hundreds of locals attended a candlelight vigil to mark the life and work of their beloved member of parliament and one-time council representative.
Bearing candles and orange ribbons, residents gathered at Alexander the Great Parkette and walked to Withrow Park. Diners on a patio applauded as they walked by.
The day before the vigil, a moment of silence had been observed to honour Layton at a community meeting held by local councillor Mary Fragedakis.
The memorials and tributes are a testament to Layton’s history on the Danforth. Layton represented the area since the 1994 municipal election when he won the Don River seat on council. He was first elected to council in 1982, representing a downtown ward. In 2003, Layton was elected leader of the federal NDP, and during the 2004 federal election, he parlayed his support in the Toronto-Danforth area to a victorious ousting of incumbent Liberal MP Dennis Mills.
Though in recent years much of Layton’s time was spent in Ottawa tending to the duties of a leader of a major political party, constituents say he remained a familiar face in the tight-knit, east-end community.
Local resident Katia Berdichevsky, who attended the vigil with her partner Michel Sereacki and young daughter Tassia, said she would often spot Layton on the Danforth, including at community landmarks like the Carrot Common.
The high school teacher recalled one particular exchange with Layton at Taste of the Danforth two years ago.
“I was teasing him about something or other that he had said in Parliament and I said, ‘Don’t worry about it ’cause I’ll take your job anyway,’ and he rebutted saying, ‘That’s the way it should be, so good on you’.
“That speaks to his integrity and personality, but it also speaks to the fact that he truly did believe that the younger generations were essential in moving forward,” Berdichevsky said, adding two of her students contacted her after Layton’s death asking if she would accompany them to his funeral.
In speaking about Layton’s legacy in Toronto-Danforth, an area typically represented by the NDP at all levels of government, Berdichevsky, 34, said she hoped that Layton’s message of optimism and working for change will now transcend Toronto’s progressive neighbourhoods like the Danforth to be an ideal to strive for coast to coast.
“He was at the end of the day, just a man, and I think that’s the real message, is that we can all do those things as Canadians, we can all look towards bettering our country, bettering ourselves we just have to pull together and find avenues to do so,” she said.
“And this community’s a great example, and we’re a niche for sure but I don’t think it begins and ends here at all.”
At the Alexander the Great Parkette vigil Candice Phoenix recalled the frustrations she had in the late 1980s in attempting to secure a location for Casey House, a hospice facility for people living with HIV and AIDS.
Other politicians, she said, had been fairly unsupportive. Layton, then a member of council, took a different approach.
“He was really helpful in making me understand … what kind of criteria I should look for,” she recalled. “He just took the sting out of the hurt that I had and turned around and said, ‘Don’t be discouraged, but what you need to do is you need to look for a place that is going to have the community’s support.’”
Eventually, Casey House opened on Huntley Street where it remains a part of the community today.
Echoing Berdichevsky, Phoenix said Layton took the time to instill a sense of community and empathy in the younger generation. When she was a teacher at Weston Collegiate in the 1990s, Layton took time off from work to speak to her class about the White Ribbon campaign to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS.
Andonis Artemakis, former chair of the Greektown on the Danforth Business Improvement Area said Layton was a man who was always working to find a solution.
“I remember one time I was talking with him about some issue, we were going nowhere, so I said to him ‘we’re going to talk here until we find a solution or a compromise’,” Artemakis recalled. “So he got up and he smiled and he put his hand on the table and said, ‘brother, I agree’ and in 10 minutes we found a compromise.”
In 1993, Layton was instrumental in helping the BIA change the name of a local summer festival to the Taste of the Danforth, as it is known today.
Artemakis chuckled recalling how he and Layton would often sing ‘O Canada’ to each other in voicemails.
“To me, he was a special kind of politician, beyond NDP, and also he had a good personality,” Artemakis said.
Speaking with the Town Crier at a recent community meeting, local MPP Peter Tabuns said that at a previous Layton memorial he had spoken with people who recalled Layton’s help in protecting some local parkland.
“The idea that he wasn’t there on call to give them political advice was a really hard thing for people to deal with,” Tabuns said.
The Toronto-Danforth MPP credited Layton with teaching him how to campaign. Now, as he gears up to defend his seat at Queen’s Park this month, Tabuns said he is feeling Layton’s absence on the campaign trail as well.
“I always worked on his campaigns and he always worked on mine,” Tabuns said. “I always appreciated both his actual physical help, but also his advice.”
Regardless of party affiliation, Toronto-Danforth’s next MP will have huge shoes to fill. And the grieving period for this community may last a bit longer than in other corners of Canada.
“He was a guy who was willing to take the time to teach, to lead, to be a friend,” Tabuns said of Layton. “And people feel that loss.”
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