As he accepted the key to the city – the city’s highest honour – for his contributions to the Ottawa community and beyond, Paul Dewar could only talk of his appreciation for the people around him.
The former teacher and NDP member of Parliament, labour activist and human rights advocate, diagnosed earlier this year with terminal brain cancer, told the individuals who packed the council chambers at Ottawa City Hall on Thursday night that they have been instrumental to his achievements.
“Really, this key belongs to all of you … family, friends and the citizens of Ottawa who have supported me and my family, Julia, Nathaniel and Jordan,” Dewar said.
Thinking of the experience as a collective honour is how he brought himself to accept the “humbling” award, Dewar told reporters after the ceremony.
“It really meant a lot to me to share this with so many people.”
In a statement announcing Thursday night’s key to the city ceremony, the city of Ottawa said Dewar is being recognized for “his service and dedication to his community and country, and his significant contributions to education and youth empowerment.”
Dewar, 55, represented the riding of Ottawa Centre in the House of Commons from 2006 to 2015. During that time, the New Democrat MP served as the official opposition critic for foreign affairs, among other parliamentary roles and responsibilities.
He lost his seat to Liberal MP Catherine McKenna in the 2015 federal election. Before he was elected to public office, he worked as an elementary school teacher and as an elected union executive.
Dewar went public with news in February that he had been diagnosed with brain cancer, later revealing it was Stage 4 glioblastoma, the same aggressive form of the disease that Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie died from last year.
He continues to receive treatment for his cancer and is also enrolled in a drug trial for glioblastoma in Gatineau.
Despite his difficult diagnosis, Dewar said he managed to find “new determination” to make the most of his time and give back to Ottawa’s youth, drawing inspiration from students in the United States who took on the American gun lobby after the Parkdale, Fla., high school shooting.
Months later, he launched a grassroots initiative called Youth Action Now, which seeks to foster and promote greater youth civic engagement and leadership.
In an emotional call to action at the initiative’s launch event on June 19, Dewar asked family, friends, students, residents, former colleagues and politicians to “reject cynicism” and “work together” to support youth who want to change their communities for the better.
The importance of community-building and helping young people reach their full potential are messages Dewar came back to once more on Thursday night.
“This is about how we build a better Ottawa, in the present and in the future,” he said. “After all, working together, we can achieve more than any of us can alone.”
Before Dewar addressed the audience, Mayor Jim Watson kicked off the speeches for the evening, describing Dewar as a “stalwart advocate for peace and justice.”
Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney and Kiavesh Najafi, both former colleagues of Dewar’s, also presented on Thursday night, saluting his work as a parliamentarian, as an individual and as a “consensus builder.”
Video messages of congratulations from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre were also played.
Dewar attended the ceremony with his wife, Julia Sneyd, and his two sons. He reiterated once more their gratitude for the support they’ve been shown since his diagnosis.