As Paul Dewar spoke at the wedding ceremony of his friend Kiavash Najafi, overlooking a lush park in his downtown Ottawa riding, passersby stopped to watch the well-known NDP member of Parliament in action.
Mr. Dewar’s deep commitment to public life, friendship and community was ever present in his life, and on full display that summer afternoon in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood.
Mr. Najafi, a former staffer for Mr. Dewar, had asked the MP to preside over his nuptials to long-time girlfriend and fellow NDP staffer Jordan Leichnitz in July, 2014. Politics had brought Mr. Dewar and Mr. Najafi together seven years prior and their professional relationship eventually developed into a close friendship.
“We got married at a park under a tree in the Glebe in his riding, so a lot of constituents were waving at him while he was presiding,” Mr. Najafi said. “He was just glowing with happiness.”
Mr. Najafi holds those memories close as he mourns the loss of Mr. Dewar, who died at his Ottawa home on Feb. 6. Mr. Dewar, 56, succumbed to an aggressive form of brain cancer.
The Ottawa native was a teacher and local union leader before entering politics. Son of the late former Ottawa mayor Marion Dewar, Mr. Dewar had politics in his blood.
Mr. Dewar was first elected MP for Ottawa Centre in 2006 and held the seat through three consecutive elections. When the NDP formed the Official Opposition after the 2011 federal election, he was appointed foreign-affairs critic.
John Baird, former Conservative foreign affairs minister, regularly faced Mr. Dewar’s loud criticism in the House of Commons. During a time of “growing partisanship” on Parliament Hill, Mr. Baird said he had constructive, respectful conversations with Mr. Dewar.
“You could always talk to him directly, even as an opposition member, and not worry that he would throw it back in your face," Mr. Baird said.
After a tight race, Mr. Dewar was defeated by Liberal Catherine McKenna in the 2015 federal election.
Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent said Mr. Dewar set an example for people in public life by approaching it with authenticity and an inherent respect for others.
“Politics for him was a means to an end for resolving, or least making better, human problems in society, whether it’s housing or poverty or conflict between religious groups,” Mr. Broadbent said.
Mr. Dewar was born in Ottawa on Jan. 25, 1963, to parents Marion, who was a nurse before entering politics, and Ken Dewar, a public servant. He had three older biological siblings – Bob, Liz and Cathy – and a younger adopted sister, Elaine.
Bob Dewar described his brother as a curious child who developed an early tenacity when dealing with life’s challenges. Both brothers had dyslexia, a learning disability that makes reading difficult.
Bob said his brother excelled when he went to The Gow School, a boarding school in New York State for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, as a teenager.
Paul returned to Canada for university and, in 1985, graduated from Carleton University with a bachelor of arts in political science. A year later, he travelled to Nicaragua with non-profit Tools for Peace, where he helped deliver aid.
“He came back from there with his eyes wide open,” Bob said. “Seeing firsthand how other people lived made a big impression on him.”
Having decided he wanted to be a teacher, Mr. Dewar attended Queen’s University, where he graduated with a bachelor of education in 1994. He met his wife, Julia Sneyd, through mutual friends in May, 1991. The couple married at their cottage on Big Rideau Lake in Perth, Ont., and went on to have two children: Nathaniel, who is now 23, and Jordan, 20.
Mr. Dewar taught at two Ottawa elementary schools, where he made an impact on the middle-schoolers who passed through his classroom.
One of his former students, Hugh Pouliot, had just transferred to Hopewell Avenue Public School in Grade 7 and was struggling to fit in. When his English teacher, Mr. Dewar, assigned a book review, Mr. Pouliot selected Harry Potter, a popular choice among his peers. But Mr. Dewar handed him a different book: his well-worn copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
“He helped me realize what my passions and interests were. I can draw a direct line from then to now to say that was the moment that I became really passionate about philosophy, social justice and poetry,” said Mr. Pouliot, who went on to work for the NDP on Parliament Hill from 2012 to 2017.
Mr. Dewar was serving as vice-president of the Ottawa-Carleton Elementary Teachers’ Federation when he decided to run for office in 2004. But shortly after announcing he would seek the federal NDP nomination in Ottawa Centre, former party leader Mr. Broadbent came out of retirement to run in the same riding. Mr. Broadbent, a household name, won the nomination and seat.
When Mr. Broadbent left politics in 2006, Mr. Dewar was elected MP for Ottawa Centre.
Catherine McKenney, now an Ottawa city councillor, was helping Mr. Dewar on his campaign at the time and remembers that election night. Mr. Dewar had been driving a beat-up old car with a passenger door that wouldn’t shut. So when he won, Ms. McKenney told him it was time to invest in a better vehicle.
“It just never occurred to him that things like that mattered. And they just didn’t matter to Paul. People mattered to Paul. And that was evident always," Ms. McKenney recalled.
During his time on the Hill, Mr. Dewar introduced legislation to make life-saving generic medication more accessible in Africa and the developing world. The House of Commons passed the bill, but it never got through the Senate.
Mr. Dewar, who served as vice-chair of the House foreign affairs committee, also pushed to ban the use of conflict minerals in cellphones. He travelled to Congo in 2009 to witness the human toll caused by the mining of minerals, such as coltan, used in cellphones and other electronic devices.
“You are holding this phone in your hand and it is connecting you to somebody who has faced significant violence and hardship in the Congo – that global connectivity really spoke to him,” Mr. Najafi said.
Mr. Dewar ran for the NDP leadership in 2012 after Jack Layton died, but withdrew after finishing fifth out of seven contestants on the first ballot.
When Mr. Dewar lost his seat in 2015, he took some time to figure out what he wanted to do next. He eventually joined the boards of Human Rights Watch Canada, Partners in Health Canada and Fair Vote Canada.
Mr. Najafi said Mr. Dewar wanted to follow in the footsteps of his mother and run for Ottawa mayor, but the devastating cancer diagnosis in February, 2018, changed his priorities. He underwent brain surgery on Valentine’s Day and began treatment after, but revealed in June that his cancer was terminal.
Mr. Dewar used his remaining time to launch Youth Action Now, a grassroots organization supporting youth-led initiatives committed to justice, inclusivity and sustainability. He also spent time at his cottage, and with friends and family.
“I don’t think he wasted a second of the past year. Every action, every decision, every conversation was determined to take advantage of the opportunities that existed,” Mr. Najafi said.
Mr. Najafi last saw Mr. Dewar two days before he died. In the final stages of cancer, Mr. Dewar was asleep during the visit, but Mr. Najafi tried to show his friend the love he shared with so many others throughout his lifetime.
“I sang him Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and kissed him goodbye.”