According to Leo Rosten in his 1968 book, The Joys of Yiddish, “A mensch is someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being ‘a real mensch’ is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, [and] decorous.
Canada lost a real mensch on February 6 when Paul Dewar, the member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre from 2006 until 2015, passed away following a year-long battle with Grade 4 glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer. He was just 56.
Dewar’s family – wife Julia Sneyd, and sons Nathaniel and Jordan – were with him when he died. His mother, from whom he inherited his commitments to social justice and public service, was the late Marion Dewar, mayor of Ottawa from 1978 to 1985.
While I didn’t know Dewar well, he was always friendly when I’d encounter him at Mitzvah Day and other Jewish community events, or occasionally at music events like the Ottawa Folk Festival. And during election campaigns when the Jewish Federation of Ottawa would hold round-table discussions with Ottawa-area candidates, I always found Dewar to be one of the best informed and most articulate representatives of any of the parties.
Although there were some New Democratic Party MPs who were hostile to the State of Israel, Dewar, the NDP’s foreign affairs critic for many years, joined party leaders Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair in expressing a principled stand that maintained support for the country and people while sometimes diverging from policies of the Israeli government.
While an NDP government would maintain Canada’s strong friendship and support for Israel, government-to-government relations, when necessary, would be more nuanced than they were under the then-current Conservative government, Dewar said at a Federation round-table meeting with NDP candidates on September 3, 2015.
“Friends, sometimes, should be able to criticize friends,” said Dewar, saying an NDP government would be “constructively critical” when necessary but would certainly maintain and expand Canada’s strong diplomatic and trade relationships with Israel. The NDP, he added, supports Israel’s right to defend itself from regional threats – including terrorist attacks.
During that meeting, Dewar also expressed support for community agencies like Jewish Family Services of Ottawa, Tamir and Hillel Lodge which are on the frontlines of providing social services.
Dewar was also a strong advocate for Holocaust survivors.
“Canada has a clear and proudly multi-partisan tradition of supporting Holocaust victims and survivors,” Dewar wrote in a 2014 letter to then-foreign affairs minister John Baird urging him to encourage his counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe to commit to restitution and compensate survivors and their families for property seized during the Holocaust.
“Canada has both the ability and the responsibility to play a leading role in advocating for prompt and proper restitution or compensation, in accordance with internationally recognized standards of justice,” he added.
Despite often profound policy differences, Dewar was one of those rare politicians who was universally respected by his political opponents in the Liberal and Conservative parties.
“Devastated to learn of the passing of my friend and former colleague Paul Dewar. An incredibly decent guy and great parliamentarian and champion for Ottawa. He was caring, companionate and competent. Thinking of his family at this difficult time,” tweeted Baird, the former foreign affairs minister and Conservative MP.
“Paul… challenged us all to dream bigger and do better to care for the people around us… He distinguished himself as a community builder, an advocate for young people, and a tenacious voice for human rights around the world. He lived up to everything a leader should be – principled, compassionate, and brave… He will be sorely missed,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party.
In a final message posted to his Facebook page on the day of his death, Dewar continued to inspire.
“In the stoic stillness of my journey, I have found my way to peace,” he wrote near the end of the message. “May you keep building a more peaceful and better world for all. Let this sacred ground be a place for all. Let the building of a better world begin with our neighbours. May we dream together. May we gather our courage and stand together in moments of despair, and may we be bound together by joyous celebration of life. We are best when we love and when we are loved… My love to you always, Paul.”