9 min

NDP’s Paul Dewar talks trans rights, AIDS drugs

HIV arrests are a sign something's not working: candidate

Paul Dewar never saw himself as a politician, although he grew up in a political household with a mother who was a city councillor and then mayor of Ottawa. Dewar sidestepped politics by going into education, and it was through that – combined with his interest in international and local affairs – that he was drawn into the political arena.

As an elementary school teacher, Dewar was elected to be the representative of the Ottawa Carleton Elementary School Teachers’ Federation. During his term, he was instrumental in establishing the humanity fund and, at that time, encouraged teachers to donate to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, an organization that works to educate about and prevent HIV/AIDS in Africa. His work with the federation combined with his encounter with Stephen Lewis left Dewar “thirsting to do more.”

In 2003 Dewar unsuccessfully ran against NDP heavyweight Ed Broadbent for the nomination.

“It was a great experience. I knew what the outcome was going to be, but I really enjoyed the process,” he says.

Undaunted by his failed first attempt, Dewar became the NDP candidate in the 2006 election – after Broadbent retired – and was elected MP for Ottawa Centre, a riding that he loves.

“I always tell people if you take the number two bus from one end to the other you get a good sense of what this riding is about, each community and neighbourhood having its own different sensibility and diversity,” Dewar says. “It’s fascinating. I really love to see the kind of organic, authentic community building that is going on, and I love that about representing this riding.”

Dewar says that also means he has to stay plugged in to what is going on.

“You have to be interested in it, and I am,” he says.

Dewar stays on top of what is happening in the riding in two ways: he tries to get to as many community association meetings and AGMS as he can; and he tries to open things up so people can connect with each other through forums, a meeting style he prefers over traditional town-hall meetings.

“I find that very deadening, so the forum idea is to get people who are already involved in the issue and know a whole lot more than I do – to get their overview and perspective of the issue,” he says. “It is a totally different way of connecting with people.”

Staying connected with the community has worked for Dewar – this is his third election campaign and, he says, it’s an energetic one. This year his volunteer base has expanded with new people, particularly youth.

“I think they are pretty tired of being told that they are not interested,” he says. “There are a lot of young people who have decided that, even if they are not at the voting age, there has been a lot talked about that they are not satisfied with the breadth of discussion and they want to do something.”

Xtra sat down with the Ottawa Centre candidates from each of the major parties. Here’s what Dewar had to say.

Xtra: Do you support the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in Canada’s human rights code and hate speech laws? What would you do as an MP to ensure those categories are added to the law?

Dewar: Yes, of course I support them, and I would help, as I did with Bill Siksay, to do whatever I can to sponsor the bill – to get it back in front of the house as quickly as possible so it doesn’t die in the Senate.

Xtra: Do you support the changes to Canada’s Access to Medicine Regime as outlined in C-393?

Dewar: I am committed to bringing that back as soon as possible and again just make sure that it is going to be dealt with fairly by the Senate. The important thing about 393 was that not only was it passed though the House with a majority of 61 votes – 26 Conservative members voted for that. Don’t tell me that this [the bill] was only passed by three parties – it was all parties of the House. It is just so decrepit that we find ourselves in 2011, bills that are passed with the support of the house die in the Senate.

So not only will I be supporting that, I will be outing the Senate on what they’re doing. Canadians, when I talk to them about it and tell them what’s happened, are really pissed off. They are really angry about that. They think it’s absolutely anti-democratic that an appointed body of people – who are mainly loyal to one political party – gets to decide what laws are going to go ahead.

Xtra: How can a local MP support the Village committee, which is trying to get formal recognition for the gay community on Bank St?

Dewar: Initially, what I said was that I support it and to be on the record for it. But I think that as we find ourselves stuck, we need to engage with individual members of the BIA to see how we can win them over and make sure they know what it’s about and how it can help us all. So just to provide that kind of leadership; so continue to sponsor it but animate it, and I look forward to doing that.

My sister actually has a business right on Gilmour and Bank and we’ve talked about it – she has the Savannah Café – we were talking about it as, Why do you think people are resistant to this? And her point of view, which I think is accurate, is that some just don’t understand, and we need to be sure to relay all the information. It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of continuing to engage, so we don’t lose the momentum. You want to make sure it is something that everyone is on board with. It’s a matter of just reaching out, frankly, and that’s leadership from all politicians who are supportive.

Xtra: Xtra has been following the rise in criminal charges for people who don’t disclose their HIV status before having sex. What would you do as an MP on the issue of HIV criminalization?

Dewar: It’s a very potent issue because we want to remind people that when the HIV crisis first hit, there was a lot of regressive ideas put forward in terms of how to deal with it. What we got from it was the anonymity, so that people could be safe, so we could actually deal with it as a health issue – we don’t want to lose that ground. People should feel safe about their status and not be criminalized. I think that what needs to happen is for it to be brought back into the arena as a health issue, to make sure that you know where you can get help and to make sure that you’re not going to be hiding in the shadows.

On the issue itself, we can’t criminalize behaviour, sexual behaviour – some behavour you can criminalize, don’t get me wrong on this – but on this issue, you have to figure out what the police want to achieve here. How do we actually deal with this? Is it through police? Or is it through health promotion and prevention? I believe in the latter. And the former, in my opinion, says that we’re failing because if we have to use the police to deal with what is arguably a health issue, then it means we have fallen down. We have to put it on the table and we have to have more dialogue. I don’t have the answer; some people are very rightly concerned that if someone is infecting partners and not telling their status, then we can’t just let that go by – there has to be something done.

The question is, is it going after people with the full weight of the law or is it a matter of actually changing people’s behaviours and making sure that people know how to prevent that sort of situation? Putting out people’s status, having police put up posters about people and what their status is – that’s going back to the beginning, when HIV/AIDS hit. Initially, people reacted in that manner and then we realized that we needed to deal with this differently, to resist that temptation to go after people. We need to get back to what worked, and to regroup if you will.

Xtra: Local police priorities have been in the news a lot recently, especially around sex-worker sweeps and charging poz folks. What should policing priorities be in Ottawa, and is there any way for an MP to influence police decision-making?

Dewar: It is provincial and municipal, but I mean, let’s be accountable. I think that the way in which we can help is that we set the tone; one, as the community, and say that we want to make sure that the response of the police is one that is in line with everyone in our communit. And that means sex-trade workers, that means sitting down at the table where you have all parties involved – residents who might be concerned about sex trade in the neighbourhood, along with police, sex-trade representatives, along with advocates – and put the issues on the table. That’s why the police are going to react and respond to where they believe the “community” is at, but we have to make sure it is the full representation of the community. That’s the first thing. The second thing is, in terms of law, I think we need to resist the temptation to see the courts as the way to fix things. Just putting people through the courts – and this is where the police agree – that arresting people and charging them through the courts is not helping. There are no services for them. The health system has failed miserably to keep up with the demand with those who need help, so why do we rely on the police to deal with matters? It’s not working, so let’s change that dynamic. I think we have to look at what’s effective, what’s smart and make sure everyone is at the table.

Xtra: In 2010, the federal government appealed an Ontario court decision striking three sex-work laws. What should the federal government’s role be in that case? Do you support Canada’s sex-work laws or would you prefer to see them abolished?

Dewar: With regards to what the federal government should be doing right now is that it should be looking at what the options are. I mean, you cannot hide from this any longer, you have to face the issue. We have to be clear on what options are available to government as opposed to what is convenient – delaying things with appeals, getting stays. I think the courts, quite rightly, gave time to respond and I think that makes sense…. but what the federal government should be doing is looking at who the key players are here – yes, it is the police, we get that. Yes, it is the community at large, but where are the sex-trade workers in this equation? We’ve come a long way in representation of sex workers. From initially not having any representation at all, to now having sex-trade workers themselves organize or people who are allies organize, to bring voice to them.

And this gets to the second part of the question – we can’t go back… This is what the courts have forced, this discourse about how people do their work – in some areas it is legal, and it’s not in other cases. Where I have a concern, to be frank about it, is the issue where you do have the exploitation and people who are, mostly men, exploiting women for their own benefit. And that part, I don’t know the answer to be honest. I just don’t know. I think there’s ways that can be dealt with in terms of other laws we have on the books. I mean, just look at how people are being treated and if they are being physically abused, financially threatened. There are all sorts of the laws on the books that should be able to deal with that to put it in the right category, as opposed to going after the women who are being exploited and putting the emphasis there. I have talked to both sides, and I have brought people together to talk about it, and I did it very quietly. This is a very sensitive issue. These decisions made at 30,000 feet affect people on the ground, and people on the ground need to be talking to each other to figure out: first of all, what we want and secondly, how are we going to deal with this?… We can’t go back. How we respond will have to ensure that mostly women, and men as well, are not, as sex-trade workers, going to be further aligned and that their rights are protected and that they are treated like other citizens. I think that is what the courts have said we have to do, so let’s get on with it.

Xtra: A BC constitutional case on polygamy is underway right now. It’s likely to head to the Supreme Court of Canada. Should Canada’s polygamy law remain on the books, and what would you do about it if elected?

Dewar: I don’t have a nice neat answer for this. My first reaction is that this has to go through the courts. So, I will wait for their judgment. My own belief is, the little bit I know, is that I don’t think it is an accepted practice in our culture until such time as I have evidence to prove that this is within a reasonable norm of social condition and that people’s rights are protected. I don’t think that we’re ready to embrace [polygamy] right now, quite frankly, and you could say that it is discriminatory, because it is based on religion. I think of how our families, same-sex marriages and trans person’s rights are in line with what they should be. Polygamy for me – it is not an area where I can actually say I understand it well enough to say that changes should be made, but I have enough concerns right now to say that we should probably leave it for the courts to look at it.