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The finishing touches were being put on the new $2.5-million visitors centre at the Norman Bethune Memorial House National Historic Site in Gravenhurst, Ontario on July 10, 2012. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The finishing touches were being put on the new $2.5-million visitors centre at the Norman Bethune Memorial House National Historic Site in Gravenhurst, Ontario on July 10, 2012. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

John Ibbitson

How China led Canada to Norman Bethune’s ‘shrine’ Add to ...

In October 1939, while tending to the wounded on the front lines with the communist Chinese army, Norman Bethune cut his finger. Blood poisoning set in. He correctly diagnosed that he would die.

As John Allemang reported Wednesday, a new visitors’ centre has opened beside the Bethune Memorial House in Gravenhurst, Ont., to honour the famous Canadian surgeon and humanitarian. And therein lies a tale that deserves to be told again.

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The Trudeau government established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1970. I was then a student at Gravenhurst High School. Bethune had been born in Gravenhurst, the son of a Presbyterian minister.

As various Chinese delegations began arriving in Canada, they insisted on visiting the Bethune “shrine.” Mao had transformed the good doctor into an icon of international Communist solidarity. In my town we used to boast that a billion Chinese had no idea about Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver, but they all knew about Gravenhurst.

The “shrine” was actually the United Church manse, home to Rev. John Houston and his family. The Houstons dutifully invited the Chinese visitors in, where they gazed in awe at Bethune’s bedroom, which now belonged to his son, who had put up the giant poster of a frog saying: “Kiss me.”

Afterward, some of the visitors came to our high school, including the Chinese national ping pong team. It was all pretty exotic for a little central Ontario town of about 3,000 people.

But when the Houstons suggested that the federal government purchase the house, Ottawa declined. After all, the Cold War was very much on, and Bethune had been a dedicated communist. (Though I believe he once said something like: “Of course I’m not a communist. I have a sense of humour.”)

A proposal to rename the high school in his honour had been abandoned after some of the teachers declared they would never set foot in a school named after a Red.

To press their point, the Houstons eventually closed the house to visitors. It didn’t take long for the new Chinese ambassador to express his displeasure. In 1973, the federal government purchased the house and converted it into a museum. The poster of the frog was the first thing to go.

Today, 15,000 people traipse through the Bethune Memorial House every year and now they will be able to enjoy a spanking new visitors’ centre to boot. Bethune’s communist taint has long since been rinsed away; modern biographers appear more interested in his relentless womanizing. (He married and divorced the same wife twice, which was quite a feat back then.)

The Harper government has invested money in expanding the museum, not because Bethune was a famous communist (certainly not!) and not because of his innovations in mobile blood banks or the Bethune rib shears, still in use today.

The calculation is as simple now as it was back in the Seventies. The Chinese honour Bethune; Canada wants closer relations with China; Canada honours Bethune.

But decades ago, a 15-year-old kid sat with his mates, watched graceful Chinese athletes demonstrate the possibilities of ping-pong, and realized that the world was much larger and more intriguing than the limits of his small town. Thank you, Doctor.

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