I caught his stare as I was brought into the House of Commons for the first time and just couldn’t read it. It was late-2006, shortly after I had won a by-election as a Liberal in London, Ontario. Paul Dewar had entered the House as a newcomer for the NDP only a few months before. I had known of him prior to my political tenure, but seeing his face that day left me with no doubt that he was a fighter of some kind.
A couple of hours later we passed one another in the Opposition Lobby and he introduced himself. Taller than me, he looked vigorous, contained, and somewhat intense. We sat on the same side of the House and frequently voted the same way on various bills before us.
Dewar was on a mission – one that didn’t begin with his election but had fueled him for years prior to political tenure. His mother, Marion, had been well-known as both the Mayor of Ottawa and MP for the NDP. Paul’s fighting spirit emerged early, when in Grade Three he had troubled reading and writing due to dyslexia. He worked his way through those challenges, eventually earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from Carleton University and Bachelor of Education degree from Queens, becoming a teacher.
He discovered a deep sense of purpose when volunteering as an aid worker in Nicaragua. Returning to teaching, he was eventually awarded by Queens for his dedication to working with special needs students. His list of activities following that point is long and impressive, but what they all had in common was a spirit of advocacy. He was a battler and it was only a matter of time until he ended up in Parliament.
To our delight, Paul and I worked well together on the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Committee. We shared a keen interest in Africa and supported one another in various initiatives to assist that troubled continent. At one point the committee had reached a stalemate and we both exited into the hallway and attempted to hammer out a compromise between our positions. It worked and the motion was passed. I came to trust in that instinct of Paul’s, that he could find compromise if it was fair and also came from a place of honest endeavour.
At one point I had a light lunch with NDP leader Jack Layton in the fifth-floor restaurant in Centre Block and he shared with me that his party was always full of fighters, but that Paul Dewar brought in a kind of international expertise and commitment that the party occasionally lacked. “Help him when you can, Glen,” he offered. “He’s totally committed to his work.”
And that’s just how it turned out. When he ran for the NDP leadership after we both had left the House, I send word to him that I would be glad to see him in London and supported what he was trying to accomplish, especially in overseas matters. Though he said we’d grab a coffee, we didn’t get to hook up because of his heavy schedule, but did communicate by email.
It was with a real and deep sadness that I learned of Paul’s diagnosis of terminal grade 4 glioblastoma cancer – the same cancer that took Gord Downey not long ago. In typical fashion, he announced the prognosis to the world and affirmed that he would spend his remaining time supporting grassroots youth movements.
All of this has been deeply moving for me, as I continue to reflect on his activism and his fitting role as critic for Foreign Affairs in the House while he was there. He was always struggling, always railing against injustice, always attempting to bring voices into the political system that otherwise might have remained isolated without such a champion. He will forever remain in my memory as a wounded warrior – bearing the scars of those who history had frequently marginalized and who politics refused to engage.
And now he bears the final wounds of his own. He faces his own departure by focusing on newly arrived young minds and spirits who need to know that public service is worth the effort and that a better world must be created by better policies. He is like many other politicians in that he cares for his country and the place of the marginalized within it. But he is more than that. His years in the House were preceded by a lifetime of struggle for social justice and he brought that experience to the centre of the nation’s political interest. He was never my foe, but always my friend. I was 13 years his senior, but he was the better, more mature person and I learned from him.
In those seasons when we’re increasingly tempted to tear down politicians and their actions, we should remember people like Paul Dewar – public servants who brought a deep humanity to politics and who seamlessly carried on with that essence long after politics has ended. Fight on, Paul. More is yet to be done and we still require champions for a more equitable world.