As he lay in a hospital bed in February, watching media coverage of the Parkland, Fla. high school shooting that claimed the lives of 17 people, Paul Dewar said his reaction, at first, was “deep despair.”
At the time, the former NDP member of Parliament had just been diagnosed with brain cancer and was recovering from surgery when he learned of the tragedy south of the border.
“Honestly, I had abandoned any hope,” a visibly emotional Dewar told a crowd of more than 300 people gathered in his honour at the National Arts Centre Tuesday evening. “A kind of emotional numbness descended upon me … and I was ready just to turn away and give up.”
But then, “it happened,” he said.
“These young citizens declared that the status quo was not acceptable. … They decided, as young people, not to give in or descend into hopelessness but they used this crisis as a turning point,” Dewar said. “ … They instilled hope in me while I was sitting in that hospital bed.”
Over the past four months, Dewar – who recently disclosed his cancer is incurable – channeled that hope into creating a new grassroots initiative called Youth Action Now. Launched this evening in Ottawa, the initiative’s goal is to foster greater youth civic engagement and provide an incubator for projects led by young people.
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In a powerful and emotional speech, Dewar, 55, issued a call to action to the bright lobby packed with family, friends, students, former NDP colleagues, politicians and Ottawa residents – asking them to “reject cynicism” and “work together” to support young people who want to change their communities for the better.
“This is for all of our self interest. This is for making sure that we’re all taken care of and to see that there is hope … that it’s concrete, that things can happen for the better,” he said. “But we’ll only do it when we’re together, so I encourage you all to seek out opportunities to work with young people.
“They will lead you in the right direction, there’s no doubt about it.”
Dewar paid tribute to a number of young Canadians who turned great personal hardship into a force for social good – including Shannen Koostachin, a young activist from Attawapiskat who campaigned for a new school on her reserve, and Ottawa native and double lung-transplant survivor Hélène Campbell, who became a fierce advocate for organ and tissue donation.
Dewar also honoured Jonathan Pitre, a teenager from Ottawa who passed away in April from a rare and debilitating skin condition he’d lived with since birth. Many present at the launch wore yellow butterflies in honour of the “Butterfly Boy,” who worked tirelessly to increase public awareness about his painful disease.
Before he took to the stage, Dewar was introduced by his two sons, Nathaniel and Jordan, and his wife, Julia Sneyd, who pledged her commitment to bring Dewar’s vision for Youth Action Now to life in Ottawa – and perhaps, with success, across Canada.
Sneyd called the youth initiative a “big picture idea” that still needs to be operationalized, and appealed to the crowd to donate to or volunteer with the project, which the family hopes will be Dewar’s lasting contribution to his community.
“It’s a legacy that truly encompasses Paul’s life,” she paused, her eyes welling, “as an activist, grassroots organizer, teacher and member of Parliament.”
Dewar, who represented Ottawa Centre in the House of Commons from 2006 to 2015, is receiving treatment for his cancer – Stage 4 glioblastoma, the same aggressive form of cancer Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie passed away from last year.
Dewar, a widely-respected politician, had been seriously considering a run for mayor in Ottawa’s municipal election before he learned he had cancer. News of his diagnosis prompted an outpouring of reaction in the national capital and beyond.
Dewar didn’t tiptoe around his prognosis at the lively and emotional event – but in bringing it up, thanked those who have supported him and his family in the aftermath of his diagnosis.
“It is a very difficult time for me right now. I don’t need to tell you that … my health situation isn’t something that is easy to deal with all the time,” he said. “But it is incredible to have this support that I’ve had from all of you.
“I’ve felt your presence and it’s helped me on this journey that I’m on.”