Cape Breton political icon MacEwan dies

SYDNEY — Paul MacEwan was a sharp-tongued speaker, dogged campaigner and shoe-leather politican who worked hard on behalf of constituents.

The iconic Cape Breton politician, who served the people of Cape Breton Nova, for better than three decades, died Tuesday at age 74 after a long illness. He had retired from politics in 2003.

Gordie Gosse, who took over the seat after MacEwan retired, knows his predecessor’s legacy to the day.

“Thirty-three years, 225 days,” said Gosse Wednesday, noting MacEwan was the longest-serving MLA in Nova Scotia since Confederation.

In practice, Cape Breton Nova was MacEwan’s riding and not the territory of any particular political party. First elected in 1970, he served his constituents as an NDP member and later as leader of the fledging Cape Breton Labour Party.

He also held the seat as an independent and in 1990 joined the Liberal caucus where he was voted in as Speaker of the House. 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 man.

Manning MacDonald. (File)

“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 Liberal MLA for the neighbouring riding of Cape Breton South.

MacDonald knew MacEwan from childhood. They grew up a block apart and hung out together, a pair of “rink rats” at the Sydney Forum.

“He was a people person for sure,” MacDonald said. “He had a lot of time for those who needed his help and he spent a lot of time helping people.”

MacEwan, it’s said, often worked well into the night drafting letters on behalf of his constituents on issues such as Canada Pension Plan appeals or workers’ compensation claims. He’d even represent them at board hearings, MacDonald said.

A teacher prior to entering politics, MacEwan was also an accomplished pianist and knew several 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 question in broken French or Italian or whatever came to mind,” MacDonald said.

One heated incident in the legislature became legend. In February 1973, Cape Breton Centre MLA Mike Laffin got so riled up about MacEwan he stood up from his seat, walked over to and punched him.

In 2013, MacEwan told the Cape Breton Post he “wasn’t really shocked. 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.”

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.

Gosse said he knew coming into office that MacEwan was leaving big shoes to fill.

“You would have to have three MLAs to fill those shoes,” he said.

“He was the champion for those people,” Gosse said. “He filled out all those forms himself, personally. He went and sat at all of those kitchen tables, you could never count how many kitchen tables he sat at.”

MacEwan’s death was all anyone was talking about in Whitney Pier on Wednesday, Gosse said.

“It’s a sad day here in Whitney Pier, in Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia. To lose a man of that intellectual ability, it’s a sad day,” he said.

Jim MacLeod, a longtime municipal councillor who called MacEwan a good friend, noted he most recently visited him in hospital on Sunday.

MacLeod said MacEwan had an encyclopedic knowledge of the residents of Cape Breton Nova, their familial connections, even many of their birthdays.

“His only Facebook was face to face,” MacLeod said.” That’s why Paul was so successful as long as he had been … He never missed a church service, he never missed a funeral. I don’t know how he knew everybody.”

MacLeod said he learned a lot through his association with MacEwan.

“The majorities that he had, that was because of his personal touch. He was a fantastic individual,” he said.

“I’m very heartbroken over it.”

Flags at the Civic Centre in Sydney were flying at half-mast in MacEwan’s honour Wednesday. MacEwan’s funeral will be Monday at the Holy Redeemer Church in Whitney Pier at 10 a.m.

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