NDP MP and leadership candidate Paul Dewar talks education.
There is some confusion among the volunteers and then, suddenly, the curly-haired New Democratic leadership candidate in the oversized leather jacket swings open a porch door a few houses down the road, bounds down the front steps and rejoins the team on the sidewalk.
“It’s a 16-year-old kid and his parents were busy,” Dewar, 49, says with a smile as he points his thumb toward the house that delayed him while out knocking on doors with Craig Scott, the NDP candidate in the upcoming Toronto-Danforth byelection.
“So I just gave him a civics lesson. You know, ‘we’re having a byelection. Do you know why it’s happening?’” Dewar explains. “He’s the same age as my eldest son, so I gave him a pop quiz.”
Suddenly, Dewar realizes something he forgot to ask the kid.
“I should have signed him up as a member. Then he could have voted for me,” he says with a laugh before moving on to the next house.
Dewar has been the MP for the riding of Ottawa Centre for just over six years. He made a name for himself as the NDP foreign affairs critic before becoming the fourth candidate to enter the leadership race last fall.
Before all that, he was a teacher and he argues it prepared him for the job he wants more than most people might think.
“Teachers are natural leaders,” says Dewar, who lives with his wife Julia Sneyd, who is also an elementary school teacher, and their sons Nathaniel, 16, and Jordan, 13, on a quiet street in Old Ottawa East.
“I think what I have taken from teaching and applied to politics is that it’s important to truly understand people’s lives and connect with how they live their lives so that you can hopefully not only help them but learn from them,” says Dewar.
Learning did not always come easily.
As if struggling with dyslexia was not hard enough, Dewar recalls teachers sending him out to the hall, once getting a strap or a ruler slapped down on his palm by the nun who was the principal at his Catholic elementary school.
Dewar says his offences were mild.
“It was just talking. ‘Paul, be quiet. Paul, stop asking questions,’” Dewar recalls the teachers saying as he described, with a sheepish chuckle, what he called his “loquaciousness,” a word that anyone listening to him talk for five minutes while waiting for a 10-second clip would say is most apt.
“I often asked ‘why?’ and that was not always welcomed,” Dewar says.
Not at school, anyway.
As the youngest of four children born to Ken Dewar, a public servant, and Marion Dewar, who became mayor of Ottawa in 1978 and was later briefly an NDP MP, he grew up in a home where lively debates were routine around the supper table.
“It was always stimulating,” says his older brother Bob Dewar of being raised by devoutly Catholic social activists who welcomed both progressive elites, such as former federal NDP leader David Lewis, and the downtrodden into their home. “Our door was always open.”
His parents adopted a fifth child, a third sister, when Dewar was older.
His parents were worried about the trouble that Dewar was having in school, but they were also aware that attitudes about how to educate children had changed since their eldest son Bob — about a decade older than the baby of the family — went through the system.
“All that ground was shifting, so they were quite supportive,” says Dewar, who has fonder memories of his non-academic pursuits in high school, where he describes himself as both a jock and a student government nerd who floated between groups and made a point of befriending the new kids.
Meanwhile, Dewar was catching the politics bug, travelling with his mother to Winnipeg as a preteen to attend the NDP convention that elected Ed Broadbent as federal leader.
Three decades later, Broadbent made a comeback to politics and trounced Dewar in his bid to run for the NDP in the 2004 federal election. Dewar won the seat two years later.
“He was always a precocious kid,” recalls Bob Dewar, who also remembers the sound political advice their mother, who died during the 2008 federal election campaign, gave to her youngest son: “She used to say to him: ‘If you want to run, go out and get some life experience,’ which he did.”
University had been an exciting place, where Dewar engaged in campus activism on everything from acid rain and apartheid to the peace movement and cruise missile testing, his curly hair longer in the back than it is now.
“I wanted to go around and see what was happening, see in real terms how politics happens on the ground,” says Dewar, who graduated from Carleton University with a degree in political science and economics in 1985.
His eye turned to Central America, where he was intrigued by the Contra war, especially after the mayor of Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, came to visit his mother in Ottawa as part of an organization called Mayors for Peace.
Dewar waited tables to finance the trip and then headed down to Nicaragua in 1986 with a group called Tools for Peace, where he volunteered at a coffee co-operative and then helped deliver aid to hospitals and schools.
He also learned Spanish while forgetting much of his high school French, which would come back to haunt him in the race to replace the Quebec-savvy Jack Layton, which has its share of credible, fluently bilingual candidates.
Those six months, when he also travelled to Guatemala and Honduras, changed his life.
“Going down I had this classic Canadian idea. . . I was going there to help those people,” says Dewar, wrapping his knuckles on the table to emphasize those last three words. “I think a contributed a lot, but I also learned so much more than I gave.”
Seeing dozens of kids crammed into tiny classrooms with nothing but a chalkboard, sharing textbooks with fellow students — many of them the first in their family to learn how to read — is what made Dewar want to be a teacher.
“(It) cemented with me the idea that education was the most potent way to change things when we’re talking about poverty,” says Dewar.
Later, when he was vice-president of his local of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, he advocated donating to the union’s humanity fund that gives money to the Stephen Lewis Foundation to help support education in developing countries.
As a young teacher, Dewar was intent on mastering the balance between being approachable and being too friendly.
“I always joked that ‘I’m your teacher. I’m not going to be your friend. We might be friends later on in life, but not right away.’ I always went by ‘Mr. Dewar’ as opposed to my first name,” he says.
Evan Akins, 26, who had Dewar for Grade 8 English at Hopewell Avenue Public School, remembers his former teacher helped him cope with moving from a learning disability class to the mainstream.
“He always told me I could talk to him after class just to get a better understanding. If I ever needed help, he was there,” says Akins, who is now a student at George Brown College in Toronto. “He was definitely an authoritative figure, but a very open authoritative figure, so you never felt intimidated to ask him questions.”
Dewar says there is no question that struggling with dyslexia as a student helped him relate to students grappling with all sorts of problems, including one student who confided that she was thinking of committing suicide.
“I knew what it was like to take on challenges and what it’s like to be intimidated by what’s in front of you,” says Dewar.
It did not surprise Rob Sutherland when his niece and nephew raved about how much they adored “Mr. Dewar” when they were in his class at Hopewell.
Sutherland had grown up a few blocks away from the Dewar family, but he knew the youngest child best from when they worked together for Evelyn Gigantes, when she was Ontario health minister in the NDP government of then-Premier Bob Rae.
Dewar was in between teaching gigs at the time and in 1990 began working in the constituency office, answering the telephone and greeting people who walked through the front door.
“Even when they were mad at him they couldn’t stay mad at him for very long, because he was just so affable and easy to get along with,” says Sutherland, who managed Dewar’s 2006 federal election campaign and is now chief of staff to federal NDP whip Chris Charlton. “A lot of people were mad at that government over a lot of things. . . Paul would just defuse their anger, just from his sheer force of personality.”
Having a nice guy for a candidate has not stopped the Dewar campaign from playing hardball.
There was the internal poll released to the media the morning after the Quebec City debate last month that distracted everyone from his weak performance in French and put the other campaigns — especially that of veteran strategist Brian Topp, which the poll suggested was in fifth place — on the defensive.
There was his move to pin Toronto MP Peggy Nash into a corner on hospital user fees during the Quebec City debate last month and then again on corporate tax cuts in the Winnipeg debate.
Calling him on it elicits a kind of “aw, shucks” response.
“I’m simply offering her an opportunity to be clear about where she stands on this extremely important issue,” the doe-eyed Dewar says earnestly when asked if he would go so far as to call Nash a “flip-flopper.”
Nice guy, solid organization, observers of the race often say when discussing his chances at victory. Too bad about the French.
Denis Monnin , 63, stands in the front row of the balcony level at the Palais Montcalm in downtown Quebec City, staring at the stage below as Dewar, his student, pushes through his opening statement of the French-language all-candidates debate there last month.
This is the part where Dewar gets to rely most on his notes. The sentences are short. The accent is off. Some words are mangled.
Dewar is fighting the internal monologue he says comes from being a teacher, fighting the instinct to correct himself. Oh, that’s a mistake. Stop and find the right words. No. Let it go. Just keep going.
Dewar nods his head when he is done, something between a shy smile and a frown on his lips.
Monnin, an education professor at the University of Ottawa, is volunteering his time as traveling French tutor as his way of contributing to the political party for which he has always voted and also recently joined.
That included having Dewar come live with him and his wife over the Christmas holidays so they could speak the language while cooking dinner and watch French-language movies together at night, sometimes pausing and rewinding to make sure that Dewar understood a joke.
“He’s an adult, so it’s taking a bit longer than if he was younger, but he’s getting there,” Monnin says the morning of the Quebec City debate.
Monnin sees hope in the way that Dewar is becoming less of a wallflower when speaking to small groups of people in French, letting his personality shine through a little bit more than he did before.
“He doesn’t stop after ‘yeah, you’re right,’” says Monnin, originally from a suburb of Paris. “He really tries to go beyond clichés or ready-made sentences, into a more relaxed kind of French . . . That doesn’t always come out in the debates because it is very difficult to do so.”
Dewar is under incredible pressure to prove himself capable of leading a party that owes its Official Opposition status to its unprecedented success in Quebec — something that is in no way guaranteed to happen again in the next election.
Dewar is optimistic, believing that if there is one thing he is capable of changing about himself, it is his fluency in French.
And in that “nice guy” way of his, he mentions that he actually listened to his colleagues while they were delivering their own performances onstage in Quebec City.
“And everyone makes errors,” he says.