A grassroots politician
Paul Dewar headed for the classroom after leaving Queen’s with his BEd degree, but a decade later he left teaching and embarked on a new career path – one that recently led him on a quest to become Canada’s first New Democrat (NDP) prime minister.
Following Jack Layton’s death last August 22, Dewar, the MP for Ottawa Centre, spent six months campaigning for his party’s leadership. Had he won, Dewar would have been leader of the Official Opposition and running for prime minister in the next election.
However, in late March, New Democrats chose Tom Mulcair instead, and so Dewar returned to his MP duties and to his role as the party’s foreign affairs critic.
During a chat in his Parliament Hill office – where he offered his visitor coffee in a Queen’s mug – the 49-year-old reflected on his political career, so far, and his time in Kingston.
Even though he grew up in the nation’s capital, studied politics for his undergrad degree at Carleton, and had an activist mother (Marion Dewar) who was mayor of Ottawa and briefly an MP, the younger Dewar didn’t always envision a life for himself in politics. He loved teaching and being engaged in public service through volunteer work on environmental campaigns and other issues he’s passionate about.
In 2004, when an opportunity arose to run for the NDP nomination in Ottawa Centre, Dewar took it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one eager to claim the nomination; the party’s former leader, Ed Broadbent, LLD’09, had decided to make a political comeback.
Not surprisingly, Broadbent won the nomination. However, Dewar didn’t have to wait long for another shot. When Broadbent retired from the House of Commons for good in 2005, Dewar successfully sought the nomination, with his wife Julia’s encouragement, and won the seat in the January 2006 election.
While he misses teaching, he says he thoroughly enjoys his work as an MP. “What I love is the engagement with people,” he says.
One of the many lessons his late mother taught him is that wielding power can be a good or a bad thing. What’s key is how you use it to mobilize people to assert their power to make change.
“For me, that’s what politics is about – organizing and connecting with people and coming together with ideas and pushing them,” he says.Real change comes out of communities, ”from the grassroots,” in his view, and that’s the kind of politics that excites him. So wouldn’t he be better suited to municipal politics?
No, Dewar insists, Parliament Hill is the right fit for him. Though it’s foreign affairs that keep him on his feet in question period these days, he says, “I think federal politics need a good injection of grassroots, local politics.”
As he toured Canada in the course of his leadership campaign, Dewar says he was shown more than ever that MPs need to have a closer connection to people in their communities. Too often people don’t view the federal government as a force for positive change, he says. Dewar is intent on doing what he can to change that.
“We ... I, need to be seized with this engagement of Canadians in political affairs to show them why it matters,” he says.
A strong sense of community is one of the things Dewar appreciated about Queen’s. He recalls that his professors were connected to their discipline and to the Kingston community. Dewar followed their lead, immersing himself in both town and gown. He enjoyed jogging along the shore of Lake Ontario and volunteering with Open Book, a literacy program for youth. Dewar also has fond memories of a practice-teaching stint he did on nearby Amherst Island.
There is special connection among the students, the staff and the community at Queen’s, he says. “That’s something that I hope is never lost.”
Dewar is still reflecting on the lessons he learned in his leadership bid, what went right and what didn’t. Would he ever run again, if the opportunity came up? He doesn’t rule it out. However, the NDP isn’t due for another leadership review any time soon, and that’s just fine with Dewar, who’s focused on his party winning a majority in the next election.
To do that, he says the NDP must engage with ordinary Canadians to build their trust and show them that the party is ready to govern. “If we earn that trust, we can be the government,” says Dewar.