Larger than life
Long-serving provincial politician Paul MacEwan dead at 74
Paul MacEwan is being remembered as an iconic figure in Cape Breton politics, the likes of whom will likely never be seen again.
The long-serving MLA for the provincial riding of Cape Breton Nova died Tuesday at age 74 after a long illness. He had retired from politics in 2003.
“33 years, 225 days,” former NDP MLA Gordie Gosse, the man who succeeded MacEwan in the riding, said, outlining his predecessor’s term in that office, noting MacEwan was the longest-serving MLA in Nova Scotia since Confederation.
During that period, it’s fair to say that Cape Breton Nova was MacEwan’s riding and not the territory of any particular political party. When he was first elected in 1970 he served his constituents as an NDP member and later as leader of the fledging Cape Breton Labour Party.
He went on to serve as an Independent and in 1990 he became a member of the Liberal caucus where he was voted in as Speaker of the house, a role he served until 1996. He also served as government house leader, a committee chair, deputy government house leader and caucus whip.
But MacEwan was known primarily as a constituency MLA who went out of his way to assist residents who needed his help, whether it was a matter that fell under provincial responsibility or not.
“He was not what you would call a party loyalist, in a sense, he was a loyalist to his constituents instead,” said Manning MacDonald, the former mayor of Sydney and former Liberal MLA for the neighbouring riding of Cape Breton South
MacDonald knew MacEwan since childhood, growing up only a block away from him and described both of them as “rink rats” hanging out together at the Sydney Forum.
“He was a people person for sure, somebody who respected you for who you were, not what you were,” MacDonald said. “He had a lot of time for those who needed his help and he spent a lot of time helping people.
“He was, I believe, dedicated to making life better for people who had very little.”
MacEwan often worked well into the night drafting letters on behalf of his constituents regarding issues like Canada Pension Plan appeals or workers’ compensation claims.
“And he would actually represent these people at these board hearings and did it very well over the years to the point where the people that were directing these programs knew he was coming, they had better be prepared because he was prepared,” MacDonald said.
While he did take on roles such as Speaker of the house, MacDonald said MacEwan didn’t particularly enjoy the time he was required to spend in Halifax, preferring to be home in Cape Breton Nova.
“The fact that he was Speaker didn’t impress him to the fact that he was going to give up on his constituency work,” he said.
A teacher prior to entering politics, MacEwan was also an accomplished pianist and knew several different languages, occasionally drawing the ire of others in the legislature when he opted to demonstrate his linguistic prowess.
“He would infuriate the opposition by answering a question in Russian or answering a question in broken French or Italian or whatever came to mind,” MacDonald said.
It was another heated incident in the legislature that helps form some of the folklore around MacEwan. In February 1973, Cape Breton Centre MLA Mike Laffin got up from his seat, walked over to MacEwan and struck him, reportedly knocking out at least one tooth.
In 2013, MacEwan told the Cape Breton Post he didn’t want to make too much out of the incident, which he called “unfortunate.” MacEwan figured the incident was fuelled by party politics and a fight for the Cape Breton Centre seat.
“I wasn’t really shocked,” MacEwan said. “Whatever happens, happens — and in politics, it’s like being in a bear pit.”
MacEwan dismissed reports he lost a tooth.
“Whatever teeth I lost, I lost playing hockey,” he said. “And I lost a fair number.”
The folklore, however, is that for several weeks MacEwan could be proudly seen around Sydney missing a front tooth.
“Paul wore the result of that punch very proudly when he came back to Cape Breton, because all he would do is smile and everybody would know that he had some teeth missing and the reason why,” MacDonald said.
“I’ll miss his wit and his way of doing things.”
Gosse said he knew coming into office that MacEwan was leaving big shoes to fill, in terms of the constituency work and knew that he would have to follow his lead if he wanted to continue to get elected.
Paul MacEwan, one the province’s longest-serving politicians, died at age 74 on Tuesday. MacEwan’s Whitney Pier provincial seat was often considered the safest in the province, no matter what banner he ran under.