Impact of Paul Dewar’s death will be felt far beyond the Hill

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Paul Dewar was a national figure during his time in the House of Commons and he maintained that profile even in defeat.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 11, 2019.

OTTAWA—The impact of Paul Dewar’s death will be felt far beyond the confines of Parliament Hill.

Dewar was a national figure during his time in the House of Commons and he maintained that profile even in defeat.

No one was more shocked than Catherine McKenna when she beat Dewar in the Ottawa Centre riding back in the last federal election.

All political parties predicted that would be one riding the New Democrats would hang onto in the Liberal sweep.

Dewar’s personal popularity and indefatigable presence in the riding was renowned. He was often chosen as the best Member of Parliament in informal polls on the Hill.

His defeat proved beyond a doubt that a rising tide lifts all boats, and when the tide is falling, even a popular Member of Parliament cannot beat the trend.

Opponent McKenna had her own following and it was quite extensive. But the general view was that Dewar would be the last man standing for the New Democrats.

Had he won the last election, Dewar would have been a likely candidate to lead his party when the new Democrats decided to dump Thomas Mulcair. In defeat, he ended up becoming a key adviser for the party’s rebuilding process.

The Dewar name ran deep in the party and in the city of Ottawa. His mother, Marion, was a staunch New Democrat and served as national president for the NDP.

Like Paul, her friendly demeanour and easy-going personality reached across party lines. She served seven years as mayor of the city of Ottawa, and had many Liberals and Conservatives supporting her. After her mayoralty stint, Marion did not give up the political bug.

She entered the federal scene briefly back in 1986, winning a byelection on Hamilton Mountain to replace New Democratic MP Ian Deans, who had received a political appointment from Conservative government.

Marion was a parachute candidate but she did have Hamilton roots through family. Ironically, Paul’s successor, and environment minister McKenna is also from the Hammer.

Marion won the byelection but was beaten by Liberal Elizabeth Phinney in the general election of 1988, and she returned to her Ottawa home.

As mayor, Paul’s mother was instrumental in answering the call to welcome boat people fleeing the Vietnamese conflict back in 1979. Under her leadership, Ottawa was the Canadian city that actually welcomed the most refugees, and the welcome mat resulted in Canada being recognized by the United Nations for its refugee policy.

Her internationalism was passed along to Paul, who became a very articulate foreign affairs spokesman for the New Democrats.

Dewar was a moderate New Democrat, who understood that compromises have to be made in government.

He was a steady hand as a critic, and did not fall into the trap of exaggerating opposition criticism, so his reputation was very credible across the board.

For constituents in a heavily populated public service riding, he was the perfect representative.

He could push the government on employee issues and but he did not burn his bridges with ministers, so he could deliver on local projects when necessary.

Even when he was staring death in the face, Paul used his experience to teach others about life.

His final goodbye letter, posted posthumously, was an eloquent affirmation of the collective values he always stood for.

“I told you that I thought my illness was a gift and I genuinely meant that. In this time in between, I got to see the wonder of the world around us. This reinforced my belief that inherent in our community is a desire to embrace each other with kindness and compassion.

“In my time on this Earth, I was passionate about the power of citizens working together and making a difference.

“I wanted a Canada where we treat our fellow citizens with the dignity, love and respect that every one of us deserves.

“I wanted a world where we reduced suffering and increased happiness. A world where we took better care of each other.”

The content of his letter was eerily similar to that posted by his former leader, Jack Layton in similar circumstances.

Dewar was a values-based politician. He spent his life trying to make things better for his fellow citizens in Ottawa and Canada.

Paul was never cowed by power or privilege. He relished his roots as an ordinary man of the people and he used his last years well, ensuring that his life will be seen as a celebration, not a loss.

He will be sorely missed.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.