Ottawa Centre’s NDP MP Paul Dewar is blazing his path to the top through the grassroots of the party. Xtra reporter Dale Smith spoke to Dewar about how he plans to engage Canada’s queer community in his campaign for the party leadership.
Xtra: As leader, what actions would you take to address issues facing the queer community in Canada?
Paul Dewar: The first thing I would do is make sure that we get our bill passed to ensure human rights protection for transgendered citizens. This is something that I worked with Bill Siksay on. Not only to put legislation through Parliament, but also to make sure that we connect with our grassroots to get behind this bill and to educate Canadians as to why we need it.
The other area, of course, is around healthcare and providing service to the queer community, and we have to make sure that we keep up with the support and services in our healthcare system for the queer community, and particularly the younger demographic.
We saw the debacle around equal marriage – this is a clear indication that we can’t rest easy when it comes to the protection of human rights, and when gains are made there are always those who will be looking to take back those gains that have been made, and that means that we have to be vigilant and strong, and working with our allies on the ground to make sure that we protect all the gains that have been made.
Finally, as the [former] foreign affairs critic, I also want to make sure that we not just say that we will protect the human rights of others when we can abroad in the queer community globally, that it’s in our foreign policy.
Homophobic bullying in schools has been a big issue in the last year. What would you propose to do at the federal level?
I remember very well as a teacher having to deal with cases of young queer students who were being isolated, bullied, not supported, to the point where they were wanting to take their own lives, where they were quitting school. What has to be done is that we have to go beyond just saying that this is not tolerable, but that we actually put support to ensure that across this country.
This is a case where all governments have to work together, and we have to be assertive when it comes to ensuring there’s positive space for everyone, that there’s not exclusion at all, and get beyond the language of tolerance and ensure that we have the language of respect. It’s been helpful to have those who have been affected by this, either the families or personally, speak out as champions, and we see a lot of that, and I’m all in favour of that, but then we have to take it to the next level.
Education is a provincial domain, but when you look at where the federal government has a role, think of First Nations . . . the military or the RCMP. In all of the federal responsibilities, there are programs that we can strengthen or in some cases support.
What do you think about the Office of Religious Freedom?
Not much. Here’s this office with $5 million, no one knows where this policy came from. It wasn’t something that was ever discussed at foreign affairs committee; it wasn’t deemed a priority amongst those who advise governments. It’s fine to have human rights protection in our foreign policy, but that’s the foreign policy writ large, and the fact that they’ve siloed a whole office for this smacks of political opportunism.
Some of your other fellow candidates have put out specific platforms on queer priorities. Is this something you’re planning on doing?
Certainly, and you know my work over the years that will continue. Part of what you’ll see is my . . . doing some exciting things in organizing youth, and of course part of that is making sure that queer youth are going to be not just accepted but have a role, and that goes for youth writ large in our party.
There is always this perpetual talk that the “left” is divided in Canada, and the merger questions come to the fore, and I wondered if you have any thoughts or feelings on that question?
I’m not a pro-merger guy, and I’m not sure who is. A lot of people talk about it, but Nathan [Cullen]’s idea is kind of a process piece around non-compete clauses and nominations at the constituency level, which I appreciate that he’s putting something out there. My vision is to actually have our party focus on the next 70 seats and win those seats, to put our resources on the ground to win them over. The Conservatives are very successful at organizing on the ground at the grassroots – we’re the party of the grassroots, that’s were we came from, and it’s how we’ve always been successful. Mergers is kind of elite politics – that’s elites making deals. It’s not the grassroots coming together to change things. We’ve become the Official Opposition as a party, and people have looked to us for the first time to be government, and that’s what we have to work on.
Who are you looking to appeal to over the course of your campaign?
The simple answer is everyone, but the focus for me is to appeal to those who want to see us build our party up from the grassroots, who want to see our party take our message to places where we haven’t been able to before because essentially we weren’t big enough and people didn’t see us as a viable option to be government. I’m not just interested in sitting back and maintaining the Official Opposition status. If we’re going to go to the next level, we’re going to have to build up the ground on the grassroots and take our message to suburbia and win suburban ridings, take back the west, and maintain and even win a couple more in Quebec, and that’s who I’m appealing to – to people who want to grow and bring people in, and get to work on that right now.