With Paul Dewar’s way-too-soon death, on Wednesday evening, Canadians lost a giant. A gentle, principled, passionate giant. A giant who dedicated his very life to the service of others.
There will be no shortage of epithets for Paul, but he would likely choose to be remembered for his honest and authentic engagement with his constituents, and for his commitment to their priorities; a commitment that never once wavered.
He will also be remembered as that rarest of parliamentarians: one who, while holding firm to his beliefs and loyalty to his party, set an example of civility and multi-partisan co-operation.
Many a Sunday, for example, I would hear from him about this column.
Dewar’s political career was forged in the long shadow of his mother, Marion Dewar, who served as Mayor of Ottawa from 1978 to 1985. Marion led Project 4000, which saw the establishment across Canada of over 7,000 private sponsorship groups for refugees of the Vietnam War. Her initiative influenced the federal government to increase Canada’s refugee acceptance quota from 8,000 to 60,000.
Paul often spoke of how his mother shaped his view of politics, so it is unsurprising that Dewar’s career was marked by a commitment to social activism and a belief in the potential of politics as a force for good.
After graduating from Queen’s University, Paul taught Ottawa students with special needs, and then worked as an organizer for the Ottawa-Carleton Elementary Teachers’ Federation.
In 2006, he ran as the NDP candidate for Ottawa Centre, and was elected to the House of Commons. His colleagues always commented on Dewar’s commitment to his constituency, noting that he would attend community meetings even when they did not directly pertain to his responsibilities.
He had a collegial working relationship with his provincial counterpart, Liberal MPP Yasir Naqvi, another instance of his pragmatism over party.
In his role as foreign affairs critic, Dewar was a loud voice for social justice around the world, and a champion for human rights. He pushed the Harper government to denounce nations with homophobic agendas, as in the cases of Russia’s anti-LGBT legislation, and Uganda’s 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act.
Dewar also criticized the downsizing of Canada’s role as peacekeeper, which he saw as crucial to our country’s engagement with the international community.
At the time of his appointment as critic, foreign affairs discourse in the House was dominated by John Baird and Bob Rae. It is a testament to Dewar’s graciousness and decency as a politician that he established strong working relationships with both men.
It is not often that a friendship of this kind develops between a minister and a critic. And yet, Minister Baird made a point of inviting Dewar to travel with him to the Middle East. The two also worked together on issues facing their neighbouring Ottawa ridings.
When Paul found out, in 2018, that his cancer was terminal, he did not retreat into his own problems. Instead, he devoted himself to Youth Action Now, an initiative that supports and provides funding for youth-led initiatives. Thanks to his work, a new generation will be introduced to the principles which drew him to public service.
In November, Dewar accepted the Maclean’s Parliamentarian of the Year Lifetime Achievement award, and in his acceptance speech he struck a tone of collaboration. Speaking to the assembled politicians and journalists, he asked the crowd to remember the moment that first drew them to political work. He then asked them to turn to their neighbours and spend two minutes sharing their initial aspirations and ideas of what can be accomplished through public service.
“Is it not time,” he asked, “to take off the armour of our political party and work together as people representing citizens to build a better country for everyone?”
Paul’s message has never been truer than it is today. As we reflected when George H.W. Bush died earlier this year, there is no limit to what we can accomplish when we put differences aside and work together.
We could offer Paul no better final mitzvah, as our Jewish friends would say, than to heed this lesson as we go into the next election.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt