Politics on the Edge: Remembering Paul MacEwan

In early April 1974, on an unusually pleasant morning that promised to help deliver a big voter turnout, Pat and Roy and I, young volunteers all, began working Polling Station 16 in Cape Breton Nova.

The poll was at the bottom of Matilda Street in Whitney Pier, where I had lived for 19 years. All three of us had done volunteer political work during the 1972 federal election, but the 1974 provincial election was our first as voters. Pat, Roy, and I were there for the Party—one, we believed, of higher principles and morality than the Liberals and PCs. Our first votes would be cast for the New Democratic Party (NDP) and socialism. The Party’s candidate that day was Paul MacEwan, running for re-election in Cape Breton Nova after his first victory in 1970.

The author, far left, in his days working for "the Party." (Cape Breton Post, 1984)

The author, far left, in his days working for “the Party.” (Cape Breton Post, 1984)

MacEwan had been only 23 when he arrived in Whitney Pier in 1965, with two years of teachers college under his belt and grand ambitions. We three idealists fondly imagined that Paul had come to the Pier as a dedicated educator to teach and enlighten his grade nine classes at Whitney School (and live, with his growing family, in a great neighborhood), but as Ian Stewart points out in his outstanding biography of the man, Politics on the Edge (Nimbus Publishing), MacEwan turned up there only after he had scouted working-class Cape Breton Nova as “a perfect launching pad” for his political career.

For one thing, working-class Whitney Pier was strongly pro-union with many who saw the NDP as labor’s natural ally, including activist union members ready to support and work for a winning candidate, and the New Democrat nomination was easily achievable. Stewart is correct when he says that “even [my italics, I like that “even”] other Cape Bretoners often considered Whitney Pier to be the back of beyond.” Whitney Pier was the wrong side of the tracks, and MacEwan would shrewdly use that reputation and the Pier’s community pride to his political ends: the more we made him our own, as he knew we would, the more those other Cape Bretoners knocked Paul MacEwan as unsophisticated and gauche, the more loyally we supported him. After all, wasn’t Paul’s heart in the right place and weren’t his principles unyielding?

Though we three didn’t really know Paul, we liked him well enough, respecting his hard work for Nova constituents, and enjoying his slightly off-kilter and dated socialist rhetoric, somewhat reminiscent of the early figures of the NDP’s forerunner, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)—the legendary socialist pioneers like J. S. Wordsworth, Stanley Knowles and Tommy Douglas we loved to read and hear the old-timers’ stories about. I would live in Whitney Pier for another 10 years after that election, now and again active in the Party, but I never grew any closer to Paul than I was that day, though I would, over the next decade, have a couple of strange and unpleasant encounters with the man.

Paul narrowly lost the Matilda Street poll that day to the Tory incumbent, Percy (“Pinky”) Gaum, but, as Stewart observes, overall he “cracked the 50 per cent threshold” in Cape Breton Nova and won a “smashing victory.” MacEwan would go on to win seven more victories, several of them “smashing,” for a total of nine consecutive wins between 1970 and 1999. He would serve as MLA for 33 years without interruption in the legislature, a Nova Scotian record, and, defying all odds, he would do it “under four different partisan labels,” running, after being expelled from the NDP in 1980, as an Independent, then as leader of his bizarre, vote-splitting concoction the Cape Breton Labour Party, and, finally, as a Liberal. In fact, defying (or perhaps reinforcing?) Cape Bretoners’ reputation of being overly (as in pigheadedly) loyal, this turncoat candidate would win 82% of the vote, “by far the largest victory margin in the province,” running as a Liberal in 1995. Liberals loyally voted for their Party and New Democrats loyally voted for the man.


Ian Stewart tells the story of this career in an almost 500-page biography he worked on for over 10 years. I was looking forward to reading the book and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be even better than I’d expected. The length and the research pay off in a rich and detailed narrative that is not only remarkably accurate, but captures—I can testify to this—what it was like to be there. Stewart has the dramatist’s knack for building action and a storyteller’s eye for the humorous and revealing detail. His many set-pieces, such as the drunken occupation of the legislature by construction labor militants during the 1994 spring session, are page-turners. He’s judicious, fair and astute, and he understands politics and people. The book itself is attractively designed, with photos, detailed notes and an index.

Cover of "Politics on the Edge: The Remarkable Career of Paul MacEwan"Paul MacEwan was more than just a politician. He was a talented piano player and, early on in his career, could make a little extra cash playing with good bands at places like the West Indies Cricket Club in the Pier’s Black neighborhood. He was a sometimes inspired caricaturist, a showboating “fancy skater,” and an intense scrub league hockey player. He had a gift for languages, which served a politician well in multicultural Whitney Pier. He was (at least, in the ways he was) highly intelligent, and colleagues often marveled at Paul’s ability to quickly learn and retain information. He was a fluent writer—of myriad press releases and weekly newspaper columns as well as letters (both anonymous and signed) meant to intimidate. (I received a signed one in 1984 after appearing in the Cape Breton Post in a photo of a new NDP association.) And there were reams of more benevolent correspondence—Pat recently told me that when he was at St. FX writing his honors thesis on Cape Breton labor history, he sent Paul a letter with seven questions and got a timely reply with a detailed answer to every one of them.

Stewart credits MacEwan with “revolutionizing the role of a Nova Scotia MLA,” making the position a full-time one with a focus on constituency work, such as helping people obtain pensions and disability benefits. I remember that Paul was particularly proud of what he saw as his own innovation: blanketing a riding with lawn signs during an election to demonstrate popular support. On many evenings, Stewart recounts, the new MLA would spend hours in his basement at home making the signs himself and, as soon as the writ was dropped, the signs would start going up in every supporter’s yard, MacEwan’s people working, if necessary, through the night to get the job done. Sometimes the first that people in Nova knew of an election was when, on the way to work in the morning, they saw signs reminding them to vote for Paul MacEwan.

However, MacEwan saw himself not only as the hardest-working MLA in the province, but also—perhaps above all—as an intellectual and scholar speaking truth to power. He published three books during his political career, and one of them, Miners and Steelworkers: Labour in Cape Breton, was well-received and stayed on the provincial bestseller list for months. Given the extraordinary amount of time he put into campaigning, both for himself and the party, and the exceptional amount of constituency work he did, helping many people—and, not entirely incidentally, making his hold on Cape Breton Nova impregnable for those nine political campaigns—it is easy to believe the stories of people seeing the light on in MacEwan’s home office on their way home late from a bar and then again in the early morning when driving to work.


A remarkable man, yet his opponents and critics often expressed unusually vitriolic views about the Nova MLA. The leader of the provincial and then federal NDP, Alexa McDonough said, “It makes me physically sick to be in the same room as MacEwan.” Party President Bob Levy also disliked him:

Paul MacEwan is a tyrant, a vicious, dishonest, unprincipled thug of a politician who brings dishonour to the very name New Democrat. . . . Paul is a nut, plain and simple. His is a bizarre, no doubt nightmarish world.

In provincial secretary Serena Renner’s more sedate view, “He was, I think, a very sick man.” Liberal MLA and Mayor of CBRM David Muise thought:

Paul MacEwan was an idiot and an arsehole. . . He was morally corrupt and morally dishonest.

Stewart collects the following “pejorative adjectives” from five journalists: “manipulative;” “confrontational, abrasive, paranoid;” “always fighting a war, thin-skinned;” “surly, chip on the shoulder;” and “nuts.” Steven Kimber, then of the Daily News, thought MacEwan “a fool . . . a small-minded, mean-spirited, puffed-up partisan.” And, Stewart reports (quoting contemporary press accounts), Conservative MLA for Cape Breton Centre (and dentist) Mike Laffin, after marching down the aisle in the House of Assembly to MacEwan’s desk:

…pummeled his face with looping right hand smashes . . . thuds were audible in the Chamber as Dr. Laffin caught Mr. MacEwan on the nose and mouth with four or five uppercuts.

Jeremy Akerman and Paul MacEwan, NS Legislature, 1973.

Jeremy Akerman and Paul MacEwan, NS Legislature, 1973. Photo Nova Scotia Communication & Information Centre

Readers of Politics on the Edge will find much evidence to support these impassioned opinions, if not the pugilistic action of Laffin. One example of MacEwan’s worst instincts, which also allows us an illuminating glimpse into his mind, was a plan he detailed in a memo to his appalled caucus, a memo that reads like something written by a cross between a ruthless Stalinist and a high school Mean Girl. It was directed at David Muise, whom MacEwan saw as a turncoat because he came from a New Democrat family, but ran (and, worse, won) in Cape Breton West as a Liberal:

  1. That no member of the caucus should speak to David Muise, at any time, or show any attitude to him but that of the most frosty hostility and dislike. This must be enforced at any time or place he is encountered, whether in the Legislature or elsewhere, whether in an “on duty” or an “off duty” situation, in Halifax, Cape Breton, or elsewhere . . .
  2. All possible situations be created to cause embarrassment and discomfort for David Muise wherever possible, especially in the House itself, as by questions and statements likely to make him uncomfortable.
  3. That we attempt wherever possible to create difficulties in his constituency, as by getting our people to call him repeatedly, referring cranks and hopeless cases to him . . .

Stewart reports that the caucus’s dismissiveness of MacEwan’s plot, especially that of party leader Jeremy Akerman, “sent MacEwan into something approaching a sulk (‘You’re against me too’).”

High school and politics are both rife with so many disloyal friends!

After being expelled from the NDP in 1980, MacEwan conducted a “nasty campaign . . . almost certainly without merits” against the new Party leader, Alexa McDonough, a campaign whose “daily assaults on McDonough and her family” McDonough believed cost her father his health.

Paul MacEwan in hockey gear, legislative hockey team

On the legislative hockey team, Scotia Sun, 30 March 1995

MacEwan was both a socialist and a practitioner of McCarthyism who, even while in the Party, attacked other NDPers as “Trotskyites.” (It was especially this off-kilter and dated slur of Trotskyism, along with his numerous vendettas, that got MacEwan expelled from the Party, after years of bitter feuding with—in Paul’s not totally unjustified view—the highly principled but totally ineffective NDP establishment in Halifax). A socialist redbaiter is both despicable and ridiculous, but as with all the best Mean Girls, MacEwan’s malice could be entertainingly absurd and his vendettas sometimes had a sickly comedy to them.

It was at the 1980 Halifax leadership convention (one of Stewart’s masterful set pieces) that McDonnaugh was elected leader and MacEwan, after previously being expelled from the Party, was, as a sheepish afterthought, expelled from the caucus. I was at that convention and voted yes for McDonough and for the expulsion, but, three years later, I was reluctantly amused when, as Stewart recounts, “a McDonough vacation in Cuba provoked a MacEwan resolution in the house ‘that private tourism be not confused with those pilgrims to Cuba receiving official recognition and fraternal welcome by officials of the Communist Government and Party’”— a bizarre nightmarish world, Paul’s, indeed! But he fully succeeded in making McDonough’s life in the Assembly a misery, part of the revenge he inflicted on the NDP for expelling him (along with wrecking the provincial Party as a force in Cape Breton for generations).


Politics is, of course, a tough, dirty business and you go into it advisedly and at your peril. Stewart mentions in passing that Father Andy Hogan, the NDP representative in Cape Breton-East Richmond, was defeated in the 1980 federal election by the Liberals after “[a]n ugly whispering campaign”—in fact, the filthiest campaign I know of in Cape Breton political history. After flirting with the Conservatives and trying to make up with the NDP, the friendless MacEwan found a home with these thoroughly pragmatic Liberals. His political career had gone from supporting cockfights as a new NDP MLA to, as a fledgling Liberal, supporting their Party’s opposition to opening abortion clinics and a Liberal member’s “petition to ban homosexuals and AIDs carriers from the classroom”—the last two still presumably vote-getters with Liberals in the late 1980s.

Re-elect Paul MacEwan (Liberal) Cape Breton Nova Sign

CBC photo

It was true that the NDP Halifax establishment back then were naively ignorant of political realities, and many supporters were reluctant to do the enormous amount of grunt work necessary to elect MLAs. But MacEwan could never have gotten along with the Halifax Democrats, anyway, many of whom had one foot in Academia and whose party workers sometimes enjoyed reading good novels and discussing political philosophy over wine (the “cocktail butterflies,” he called them). But it was mostly those rarified principles divorced from all pragmatic realism that drove Paul, for whom the ends generally justified the means, over the edge. He would be much more at home with other Cape Breton political brawlers like Vince MacLean, Manning MacDonald and Dave Dingwall, Liberal politicians totally focused on what true politicians call “power”—that is, winning.

In 1993, soon after joining the Liberals, Paul was rewarded with an appointment to Speaker of the House. It was “payback time” for MacEwan, and he and other Liberals cut loose and had a ball attacking New Democrats in the Legislature, especially poor Alexa, often using frat-boy tactics. One stunt, only slightly demeaning but part of a steady barrage against her, is recounted by Stewart: “most famously, MacEwan called a recess shortly after McDonough introduced an amendment, and then waited until the NDP leader was in the washroom before ruling the amendment out of order.” On another occasion, Manning MacDonald ceaselessly heckled a New Democrat’s speech for 20 minutes, and when Alexa, as Party Leader, objected to the Speaker’s “total silence over that chaos,” MacEwan simply advised the New Democrat to stay on topic. As Manning MacDonald tells Stewart, “We could do anything. . . . We could say anything on the government side, but Paul knew where his bread was buttered” (Stewart’s ellipsis).

In short, MacEwan was a partisan disgrace as Speaker, and after three years, the always pragmatic Liberals put him out to the pasture somewhere in the backbenches, because his blatant partisanship and role as “a bully speaker” were growing increasingly unpopular with the voting public. It became clear that there would never be a Liberal cabinet position for wildcard MacEwan, while back in Whitney Pier there was a rising tide of support for the NDP candidate Gordie Gosse. MacEwan, to his credit, knew his time was past, and so retired in 2003 with his winning electoral record unblemished. (Stewart considers two other reasons for MacEwan’s exit, health problems and his complicated love life, but I say, not a chance! Whatever you think of Paul, he was tough as nails and would never have been deterred in his political goals by anything that didn’t literally knock him down permanently. And I never knew anyone in Whitney Pier, except for one grandaunt on my mother’s side, who cared about the man’s personal life, although people did enjoy a little gossip now and again about the drama with his “two wives.”)


Apart from longevity, was Paul MacEwan a successful politician? His dream was always to be —at least to start with—premier of Nova Scotia, but the highest office he

Paul MacEwan campaign photo 1981, Cyril MacDonald Studio.

Paul MacEwan campaign photo 1981, Cyril MacDonald Studio.

achieved was Speaker of the House, and his time in the chair was cut short because he was an overtly partisan failure. He never got near his much-campaigned-for cabinet seat with the Liberals. Most of this was due, ironically, to political stupidity. No politician was more hardworking than Paul, and he was frequently as shrewd as they come, but while smart politicians may act ruthlessly and dishonestly, they do so strategically—to achieve an end. Bully-boy Paul fought endless, pointlessly vindictive, often one-sided battles, making enemies and losing potential allies for no good reason. Why did he do it? People go into politics for glory, but realistic (and happier) politicians know they cannot always achieve it. Paul seemed to have an endless appetite for affirmation and control, and when he didn’t get them, he, as Mean Girls always do, lashed out and plotted revenge.

And yet. Through it all—the bullying, the vendettas, the, shall we say, eccentricity—there was, as Stewart goes out of his way to suggest, something true and idealistic in the man. Shortly after MacEwan retired, I was back in Whitney Pier for a spell and ran into him a couple of times on Victoria Road but slighted him. Finally, one afternoon, I said hello, and was surprised by his beaming smile. I realized I had never seen him really smile before. I spoke with him a bit, and wish now that we had spoken more. People say he was often lonely after he retired.

I know that, to the end, Paul sincerely believed that his exclusion and the contempt directed toward him were the result of his speaking truth to power, a cross that a just man must uncomplainingly bear. And he actually was for socialism and was an ally of labor and really did hate racism and other forms of injustice. He did help many people, more than most of us have, and when a few were ungrateful, he just shrugged it off.

Stewart says MacEwan always believed his true home was with the NDP but when he tried to get reinstated in the party in his last years, he was rebuffed. However, the new MLA for Nova, Gordie Gosse, was an admirer of Paul’s, and when it was offered, he gladly accepted Paul’s support. MacEwan died in 2017, age 74, at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital after a long stay in the palliative care unit.

One of the last political signs on Paul MacEwan’s lawn was for Gordie Gosse, the NDP candidate who succeeded him.


Ken Jessome


Ken Jessome is a writer who was born and raised in Whitney Pier. He can be reached here






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