How Paul Dewar hopes to avoid being lost in translation

Paul Wells on why there’s more to the NDP leadership hopeful than poor French

How to avoid being lost in translation

Photograph by Jenna Marie Wakani

Let’s deal with the French thing right away. Each time Paul Dewar spoke French at an NDP leadership debate on March 4 in Montreal’s Bonsecours Market, Quebec-based political reporters made a show of rolling their eyes. At one point, urging the audience to imagine a government that celebrates the diversity of the arts, Dewar said “de les arts,” which is a nice try, but it sounded like he wanted a government that celebrates the diversity of lizards.

Everyone who follows politics has had to get used to candidates for national leadership whose second language is a fixer-upper. Usually it’s French that needs work. In the Liberal Stéphane Dion’s case, atypically, it was English. Dewar, the game and rangy member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre, is the latest specimen. And it’s his French. He can make himself understood, but that’s as good as it gets. What can a guy do? He travels with a French tutor.

It’s a larger than usual challenge because the NDP won 59 seats in Quebec in the 2011 election and would like to hang on to those seats, or even win more, in the next election. The other candidates haven’t been shy about pointing out Dewar’s weakness. “It’s very hard to imagine,” Dewar’s effortlessly bilingual rival Brain Topp told one interviewer, “how you can be . . . at the head of a party whose whole future at the moment turns on holding a big breakthrough in Quebec, when you cannot speak to French-speaking Quebecers.”

The Dewar camp’s response is that French isn’t everything. “Michael Ignatieff was fluent in English and French,” Dewar campaign spokesman Joe Cressy said in an interview, “and was equally unpopular in both. What is the knock on Paul Dewar, other than, his French is getting better? I don’t hear one from people.”

And that’s fair too. In six years as an MP, Dewar, now 49, has not made enemies and has built a reputation as one of his party’s most capable parliamentary performers. His challenge has been to prove that he can be a leader, too. It did not go unnoticed when Ed Broadbent, whom Dewar replaced as the NDP’s standard-bearer in Ottawa Centre, announced that he was supporting Topp instead of Dewar for the party’s leadership.

Topp, a long-time backroom organizer, and Thomas Mulcair, the former cabinet minister in Jean Charest’s Quebec Liberal government, have received most of the coverage and attention in this campaign. Every other candidate in a crowded leadership field has had to fight for attention and coverage. Dewar’s response has been to bank on his party pedigree. His mother Marion Dewar, a former Ottawa mayor, was also an NDP MP and the party’s president in the 1980s. That’s a longer record as a New Democrat than Mulcair can claim, and more experience facing voters than Topp can boast.

“Paul started by framing his candidacy as being one that starts with the grassroots,” Cressy said. “Paul has put himself out on the road at a ferocious pace. He’s currently been to over 120 communities.”

The other component of his campaign has been to play, here and there, a little against type. The nice guy has been willing to take the odd shot at his opponents. In January, he wondered aloud whether Mulcair was still open, as he had been in the Charest government, to bulk-water exports, a taboo subject in the NDP. “I’ll be frank with you, I haven’t heard Tom speak on this issue since he’s been elected as a member of Parliament,” he told a reporter. At the next leadership debate, Mulcair angrily said he had always opposed bulk-water exports, an apparent contradiction of the public record and a small win for Dewar.

He has played Orthodoxy Cop in other ways, taking Topp to task for not being elected and Peggy Nash, another candidate, for appearing to suggest the Canada Health Act needn’t be as vigorously enforced in Quebec as in the rest of the country.

To Cressy, his campaign spokesman, these are all signs that Dewar can mix it up when he needs. “He’s a lot tougher than Dudley Do-Right.”

Still, this campaign won’t be won or lost on policy differences, which is a good thing because the areas of “violent agreement,” in candidate Nathan Cullen’s phrase, outnumber the differences. What counts is organization, acceptability to many of the party’s assorted factions, and a general sense that a candidate incarnates New Democrats’ sense of themselves.

And by those less tangible criteria, Dewar is having a pretty good winter. His record of strong performance in the House of Commons on foreign policy issues—in English—is an asset. “I’ve watched Stephen Harper,” he said in an interview. “I know how to handle him. This isn’t someone who loses his cool. But he makes others lose their cool and their focus. And I’m not going to do that.”

He also speaks a lot about wanting to run “issue-based campaigns” in the same way Harper’s Conservatives do, rallying party members around specific hot-button issues that motivate them to donate, organize and vote. “I don’t like the issues they run on, but they’ve done the organization well,” he said. “We’ve got to do the same.”

This is part of Dewar’s campaign for what he calls “the next 70 seats,” the ground the NDP still has to gain if it is ever to transform its 2011 election breakthrough into a majority government. It’s a notion that haunts New Democrats: that the greatest victory they have yet won must not turn out to have been a high-water mark.

Dewar’s plan for taking the party to “the next level,” another of the candidate’s favourite slogans, is a mix of arithmetic and hope. “The NDP finished second in 121 ridings in the last election,” Cressy says. “First or second in 224.” So all it needs to do is finish in first in all those ridings where it didn’t finish first last time.

Great. How? “I think it’s a matter of showing members that I am the person to reach out and grow the party,” Dewar said. “That I actually have a vision, not just on the policy side . . . but who’s the candidate and the person that has the most experience? Who has the energy? Who has the passion? Who has the plan to grow the party and go beyond where we are right now?

“I don’t like the language of holding on. I don’t like the language of maintaining. I like the language of growing. I like the language of reaching out.”

It is a language he speaks more fluently, for now, than the language of French, perhaps because the language of reaching out is low on the concrete nouns most languages use to fill in specific details. But this vague, happy language of reaching out is one New Democrats want to hear right now. So if Topp the blue-chip organizer and Mulcair the Quebec heavyweight stumble, Dewar is well-positioned to cash in his party pedigree and his nice-guy image.


How Paul Dewar hopes to avoid being lost in translation

  1. Listening to my two dipper friends, NDP doing well in Que and becoming official oppo last May totally queered the pitch for members. NDP never do well in Que and they not used to caring how well a person speaks French. One of my friends is big fan of Dewar but she thinks he’s doomed. According to her, Dewar ideal candidate pre election but he isn’t now because French fluency matters a great deal all of a sudden.

    • You bet French fluency is important.

      “The New Democrat Party is blasting other federal parties for failing to back its plan to force federal institutions in Quebec to use more French in the workplace.

      At a news conference outside National Bank headquarters in Montreal, MPs Robert Aubin and André Boulerice ripped the Conservative, Liberal and Bloc Québécois parties, which all recently voted against the NDP-sponsored Bill C-315.”

  2. I really don`t know how Mr. Wells can write an extensive story on a prominent NDP politician and not once mention robocalls or Vikileaks.
    Seriously, these topics are supposed to be gripping the nation and not even one mention.

    Real seriously, if I was a voting delegate at the NDP convention I would still know little about Dewar and any concrete policies he might have, 
    And I don`t blame Mr. Wells for that. Dewar is your typical Dipper, little style and no substance at all. His talk is full of the same weasely socialist words that thinking Canadians have been rejecting  for years.
    Dewar is all about ” reaching out”,  “growing,” ” vision,” “passion “.  Those are just useless words. Tell us what you would like to see in the next Budget or how we are going to pay for health care.

    Other than he doesn`t want to sell water and he seems to have some kind of mental block that has prevented him from learning French after living and working in our most bilingual city for the past 49 years, I know little useful info about Dewar.

    • I would also like to know more about this.  Did the NDP Linner hand over the info to the Liberal staffer for his vikileaks30?  Seeing a pattern here.

      “It seems @PaulDewar MB organizer Thomas Linner was sent to collect dirt on my divorce records,” Toews said on Twitter at about 3 p.m.

      • What, a pattern that the NDP are smarter than the Liberals?

  3. If this were a Conservative leadership race, the mainstream media would have shamed Dewar out of the race by now for his inability to “parle en francais”.

    But since Dewar is one of “them” [i.e. pinko-socialists -).-)], they give him a pass.

    Just like the mainstream media gives the NDP a pass for that the NDP does not weight every riding equally in its leadership voting, meaning Quebec doesn’t have a fair say in selecting the leader like they do in the Liberal and the Conservative Party.

    Even time Conservative Scott Reid proposed his modified membership voting procedure that considers both numbers of members in weighting the popular vote of a riding, the mainstream media screams “anti-Quebec, anti-Quebec”.   The NDP’s current method of selecting its leader is far more anti-Quebec than anything Scott Reid has ever proposed for the Conservative Party, and yet there is a conspiracy of silence from the mainstream media.

    This whole race has been rigged against Mulcair, and the mainstream media refuses to make it a story.  The entire establishment pre-emptively lined up behind Topp.  The voting procedure severely underweights Quebec in the voting.  Mulcair is being forced to run this race uphill, while everyone else gets to run downhill.

    And yet the mainstream media can’t be outraged enough about “robocalls”.

    • The msm seems to do a disservice in informing Canadians about relevant topics. Long after robocalling and Vikileaks and a boring NDP race are forgotten, there are two relevant future policy discussions that are happening.

      The Manning conference and the final touch-ups on a federal Budget should be topics of public discussion. 
      The conference is important because, of the nature of it`s participants, it`s ideas will reflect the path our government take for years to come.
      The Budget that will be presented shortly is the most important in years. The choices the government takes in this budget will determine the country`s ability to take advantage of a significant growth period in the near future or another downturn.

      Instead of the hysteria of robocalling or a leadership race from a Party with little detailed policies, and no hope of government, even if they had policies, it would be useful to inform us about topics that will have an actual affect on us.

      • Don’t worry, when the Robocalling scandal hits the budget fan, there will be plenty to talk about, and none of it good.

        But you’ll again be able to avoid discussing Dewar.

    • Right.  The “left-wing mainstream media”.  That would be the National Post, one of only two so-called “national newspapers”; Macleans, our “national news magazine; or, how about the Globe and Mail, which at best is right of centre liberal.  In my province the newspapers with the most circulation are the Vancouver Sun and Province and to a lesser extent the Victoria Times Colonist.  I’m thinking Most of the printed word in other provinces is of the same ilk.  Don’t go throwing the Toronto Star out there.  I’ve never read it, but if it is liberal leaning, it is only one paper.  Before you start spewing moronic crap, check to see who owns the mainstream media in this country.  Not a socialist amongst them (or a left-leaning liberal for that matter).  Oh, and how about television?  That would be CTV and Global?  Please! 
      as for the CBC have you checked out the panels on The National?  All of them, with the exclusion of the political pundits, are dominated by people from the right.  So much for the left controlling the media.

  4. I am on Paul Dewar’s team all the way. He is the dark horse as I repeat myself as a broken record.

    I don’t remember where I read I think G&M that the Harper Government is more concerned about him than any other candidate and he is right, Paul has great appeal and he really can grow the NDP base and his approach has been smart and smooth.

    And he is so right about Harper being a passive agressive (he reminds me of my exhusband, drove me insane) it is a huge asset for Harper, all his opponents look like lunatics, and good luck to Paul trying to keep an straight face with that because it truly is a gift.

  5. I may be naive but I don’t think the citizens of Quebec would turn against the NDP if their new leader was not fluent in French. I believe the vast majority of the voters of Quebec are fair minded and very astute in making political decisions with regard to this matter. 

    However, if Quebec does “dump” the NDP over this issue, then so be it.  The leader of a Canadian political party OR the leader of our country should not rest upon the prejudices of ANY particular province or territory of Canada. —— That said I realize that my opinion is not a very pragmatic one.

    • Yeah, I mean Quebec voters stuck with the Liberals when they nominated Turner in ’84… oh… wait… no… the Tories won a majority of seats in Quebec for the first time since 1882.

      And under unilingual Alexa McDonough, the NDP made some real inroads in the province… oh wait, actually they only won 2% of the vote… which fell to 1.8% in 2000.

      But then Dewar can use the excuse that he didn’t live in a part of the country where French is used. Oh no wait… he’s from Ottawa.

      If you look at the latest Forum Poll under Peggy Nash or Brian Topp the NDP falls to about 20% in Quebec. God only knows what would happen if they nominated Dewar. I mean seriously – Quebec rejects separatists federally for the first time in 19 years, putting its trust in a new party, and you don’t even elect a candidate that speaks the native tongue of most Quebecois?

      • Yup, NDP are dead in the water if they can’t elect a leader who can speak to French Quebeckers in their own language. And really it’s the least that voters ought to be able to expect, especially after giving the party a majority of their seats.

  6. Is it just me or does anyone else see a resemblance to Orwell in that shot of
    dewar? Just needs a little military ‘tash eh!

    Don’t know much about him; what’s he like on cooperation with other progressive parties i wonder?

    • Good call on the Orwell thing.

      • Yeah, it’s quite uncanny actually.Although i don’t know if i would have made the connexion so readily without the workmen’s style shirt and blazer[ wonder if that’s a conscious choice on Dewar’s part?].

        I have the same feeling only less so with Topp and Mulcair. They both remind me of someone or other famous, but i’m not sure i feel confident enough to try and nail them. Topp looks like an odd mix between the dasterdly smart little sicilian in princess bride and dany davito. Mulcair i’ll have to think a little more about…[man i need to get a life right now].

  7. Well, Paul Dewar failed appallingly on the Gatineau Park file, which Mr. Wells doesn’t mention. At least Toronto’s NOW Magazine has touched on this.

    When the time came for Dewar to walk the walk, he didn’t even attend the parliamentary committee studying Gatineau Park legislation and convinced his fellow NDPer to support the Tory bill — which contained none of the safeguards Dewar had previously called for.

    And not only this: Dewar actually boasted on his web site that the Tories had adopted his ideas on park protection. Pure hypocrisy trying to take credit for something he had nothing to do with…

    That other candidates have failed to call him on this suggests the NDP leadership race is far too collegial …

    Dewar as leader of anything is a joke. The guy’s a lightweight…

    And, by the way, Mr. Wells: you mispelled Mr. Topp’s name as “Brain.”

    • lol

      Maybe not, or at least it was a Freudian slip…I’m pretty sure Paul quite openly favours Topp.

  8. How can anyone take Paul Dewar seriously in his commitment to holding the NDP’s gains in Quebec and improving his French, when he has lived his whole life in bilingual Ottawa and never bothered to learn the language properly?

    •  Right on —plus his Ottawa only last name. Small toad- small puddle. Too bad.

  9. Frankly from what I have read and seen, the NDP is destined back to the traditional 20% or less in popularity. The Quebec NDP advances are just a flash in the pan and can not be sustained. In reality, the NDP really does not have anything to offer Canadians with their illogical policies and ideology.

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