Paul Dewar remembered as an advocate for Ottawa

Paul Dewar, the former NDP MP for Ottawa Centre, is being remembered by the community as a champion for human rights and youth activism — and as a tireless advocate for a better community.

The former Ottawa Centre MP inspired many with his vision for a more just world

Paul Dewar, former NDP MP for Ottawa Centre, died Wednesday after a battle with brain cancer. (CBC)

Paul Dewar, the former NDP MP for Ottawa Centre, is being remembered by the community as a champion for human rights and youth activism — and as a tireless advocate for a better community.

Dewar died Wednesday morning at the age of 56 after a battle with brain cancer. In his final message to Canadians, he had special thanks for the residents of his home city.

"My whole life was filled with the kindness of the people of Ottawa, but never did I feel the true depth and generosity of your love more than this past year," he wrote. "I am so grateful for all that you have done."

A vision for a better Ottawa

Coun. Jeff Leiper represents Kitchissippi ward, which overlaps with Ottawa Centre riding where Dewar was MP for more than nine years. He said Dewar's views on the potential for the city inspired many in municipal politics.  

Dewar always looked at every part of government, whether it was public transit or social services, with a focus on equity and inclusivity, said Leiper. 

We have lost a really powerful champion for a city that is more just.- Jeff Leiper

"[It was] that vision of a city that can be more than just a collection of services that are delivered to residents," he said. "We have lost a really powerful champion for a city that is more just."

During the last term of council, Leiper said he and Dewar had discussions about Ottawa's potential, from housing its most vulnerable residents to serving as a sanctuary for new Canadians. 

"I think Paul felt very strongly that we could do better," he said. "Certainly he was there in the background, encouraging those of us who were having those discussions and bringing those values to city hall."

Dewar's mother, Marion Dewar, served as mayor of Ottawa from 1978 to 1985, and spearheaded efforts to settle Vietnamese refugees in the city. Dewar himself had contemplated running for mayor last year before his diagnosis.

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney worked alongside Dewar when he was elected as an MP and said he followed in his mother's footsteps.

"We often talked about the legacy of Marion Dewar … she was just such a wonderful leader and we saw that again with Paul," she said. "We saw someone who understood people."

Speaking out for human rights

During his role as NDP foreign affairs critic in the House of Commons, Dewar spoke out on behalf of Maher Arar, an Ottawa resident who was on his way home from vacation in Tunisia in 2002 when he was stopped by U.S. officials at JFK Airport.

Maher Arar reflects on the life and passing of his friend Paul Dewar, with CBC's Adrian Harewood. 4:01

He was deported to Syria on suspicion of being an al-Qaeda operative, and spent the next 10 months in a small cell, being tortured repeatedly.

Arar said he met Dewar shortly after his return to Canada and was struck by his humility and authenticity.  

"He really cares, it's not because it's politics," he said. "[He] was very ready to speak up for the people that were detained abroad.

"Paul is going to be with us for a long time."

A last federal election

Dewar ran for re-election against Liberal candidate Catherine McKenna in 2015. Though his bid was unsuccessful, his passion for building a better society was apparent throughout the campaign, McKenna said.

"You could see just how much he cared about his community and how much the community cared about him," she said. "And that really marked me as I took on this big job."

Handing the baton to local youth

Dewar announced he was battling glioblastoma, the same cancer that affected Tragically Hip lead singer Gord Downie last summer.

But despite his terminal diagnosis, Dewar pushed forward and launched a new initiative called Youth Action Now to empower youth activists. 

That forward-looking attitude is a hallmark of who Dewar was, said Emilie Taman, the NDP candidate for Ottawa Centre in the upcoming federal election who also calls Dewar a mentor.

"A lot of people in his situation would have retreated into darkness," she said. "[But] rather than making it about himself, he said let's find a way to empower young people in our community."

Former Ottawa Centre member of parliament Paul Dewar confirmed that he had grade 4 glioblastoma, a terminal type of cancer that forms first in the brain. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

She said his activism, both local and federal, is part of the reason Dewar's loss will be felt so widely.

"[He was] a humanitarian, a compassionate person, an ego-less person who was in politics for all the right reasons," she said. "It had nothing to do with ego or power, everything to do with solidarity, support, compassion and lifting people up."