Paul Dewar was a true champion of the little guy

Paul Dewar/Flickr

Longtime Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar succumbed to brain cancer on February 6. He was 56 years old. He was the NDP's foreign affairs critic from 2011 to 2015. In that capacity, he took positions on all the major international issues of the day, including whether or not Canada should support renewed U.S. military action in Iraq.

But Dewar's passion was human rights. He doggedly championed the causes of people in far-flung places who were not always at the top of the media or political agenda.

In 2010, Dewar took on an initiative started by his colleague, former Winnipeg MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis, to make costly, patent-protected prescription drugs available to people suffering from HIV/AIDs in some of the world's poorest countries.

Dewar wanted generic drug companies to get, in effect, an exemption from patent rules so they could make life-saving medicines available to thousands of desperate and sick people in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. Dewar introduced a private member's bill to that effect, and got it through the House of Commons. Most opposition MPs and a number of Conservatives support the intiative.

The bill never passed the Senate, however, and died when an election was called in 2011. When the NDP's Hélène Laverdière tried to get a reworked version of Dewar's bill through the House in 2012, the Conservative majority blocked it.

Conservatives praised the humanitarian motives of the NDP's measure but worried about its potential negative effects on pharmaceutical research and development in Canada. They also feared any weakening of drug patent protection would annoy the European countries with which Canada was negotiating a giant trade deal. The pharmaceutical industry is huge and influential in Europe.

When he spoke in the House of Commons to Laverdière's bill, Dewar demonstrated the grassroots compassion and humanity that was characteristic of his entire career in public life.

The Ottawa MP started by describing a recent visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he witnessed advanced testing that allowed people to know whether or not they had HIV/AIDs, without shame or stigma. The next stop on his itinerary was not so encouraging, however. It was to a warehouse that was supposed to store drugs that combat HIV/AIDs.

"That warehouse was half-empty," Dewar told the House. "This was the place where the medicines were stored for the people who had been tested and identified as having the HIV virus, in some cases full-blown AIDS, and other diseases, were reliant upon. I was stunned. I asked where all the medicines were. They said that they could not get any. I asked why not, and they said it was because there were problems with patent barriers."

"I will never forget it because we essentially gave people false hope," Dewar concluded. "We gave them the indication that we were going to be helping them out, but without providing treatment, we are essentially giving people notification of a death sentence."

Encouraging Canadian mining companies to do the right thing

A couple of years after his failed attempt to get life-saving medicines to AIDs suffers, Dewar put forward another private member's measure focused on forgotten, abused and exploited people far from his home riding.

This bill was designed to help curtail trade in what are called conflict minerals. Those are the precious minerals, some of them very rare, that warring factions in unstable and strife-afflicted regions use to finance their bloody and brutal activities.

Dewar's bill would have obliged Canadian companies operating in conflict regions, and most notably in central Africa, to follow due diligence when dealing with minerals that finance civil war and terror. Companies would have to conduct independent audits to determine the source of the minerals they acquire, in order to assure that none came from armed militia groups.

In speaking to his bill, Dewar again evoked his experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"For the record, here are some of the facts," the NDP's foreign affairs critic said. "The conflict that has been raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998 is the deadliest conflict since World War II. In 2011, the number of rapes was estimated at 48, not per year, per month or per day, but per hour. Rape is used as a weapon of war. In 2012, 2 million people were displaced. That is approximately the equivalent of the combined population of Manitoba and Saskatchewan."

As for the significance of the minerals his measure sought to regulate and control:

"Conflict minerals generate $180 million per year for armed groups, literally keeping some militias in business. Up to 40 per cent of those working in the mines are children. These children, who are exploited and abused, are then prime targets for recruitment by armed groups."

Dewar's private member's bill was moderate and pragmatic. It would not force Canadian companies to do anything. Its only weapon was moral sanction. 

Still, it was too much for the governing Conservatives, who voted it down

Dewar had little to gain politically from championing the causes of AIDs victims and exploited child miners in Africa. Few voters in his Ottawa Centre riding were preoccupied with those far-away issues.

Dewar took up those causes, and invested considerable energy in them, because he had witnessed abuse, exploitation and injustice first hand and could not bear to sit by and do nothing about it.

That was the kind of person he was.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Photo: Paul Dewar/Flickr

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