Norman Bethune was such a larger-than-life and protean figure during his brief but eventful transit of the planet that almost 73 years after his death he continues to contain multitudes. Looking at the controversy sparked by the opening of a $2.5-million federal enhancement to his birthplace in Gravenhurst, Ont., it appears there are enough Norman Bethunes to fit most any Canadian’s ideology, political stripe, belief system and hall of heroes or villains.
None other than Treasury Board president Tony Clement – in whose riding Gravenhurst is located and whose ministrations two years ago got the enhancement rolling (along with a multitude of other enhancements) – declared this week that Conservatives (and conservatives) can salute Bethune’s “humanism and entrepreneurship” even as they look askance at the physician’s communism, sexual shenanigans and general anti-establishment contrarianism.
Mr. Clement’s perspective may be too sophisticated for those who see the Bethune Memorial House project as akin to flying the red flag over Ontario – an outright endorsement, in fact, of the evils of communism, one of the numerous causes, albeit a major one, that Bethune embraced. (Mr. Clement’s endorsement of “humanism” may also grate some among the party base, although it’s possible he meant humanitarianism). Would it not have been better, the critics argue, to have earmarked the $2.5-million to, say, a memorial or institution honouring the millions of victims of communism?
No, it would not. Bethune, for all his failings, remains a figure of undisputed historic importance here and abroad (especially in China), and the home in which he was raised deserves care and preservation. To suggest such an investment represents a celebration of Maoism is analogous to saying the Batoche National Historic Site in Saskatchewan is a celebration of Louis Riel’s hallucinations or the Battlefields Park on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec an uncritical endorsement of 18th-century of British colonial ambitions.
Historic sites are at once heritage benchmarks and tourist draws. They create jobs at the sites themselves and in the communities where they’re found or near. A refreshed Bethune Memorial House is a worthy project, the $2.5-million expended fittingly described as an investment.