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Baird defends Tory tribute to Maoist Norman Bethune

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

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird defended the Harper government's decision to spend millions of dollars upgrading a memorial to Canadian doctor who became a hero to China's communist revolutionaries.

He said Norman Bethune is worth commemorating because he's part of the fabric of Canada's history.

The Harper government recently opened a new $2.5-million visitor's centre at Bethune Memorial House in Ontario's Muskoka region – a tribute to the thoracic surgeon.

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An ardent communist himself, Dr. Bethune died while treating Mao Zedong's troops in 1939 and his former home in Gravenhurst, Ont. has become a shrine for Mainland Chinese admirers.

It's not the type of spending one would expect from the right-wing Harper government but it makes sense considering Canada's efforts to expand trade and investment ties with China, where Dr. Bethune is still revered for his service to the Chinese Revolution.

Mr. Baird said Friday that he wholeheartedly backs the new visitor's centre.

"I support the Parks Canada efforts in this regard. Norman Bethune is a historical figure and it's certainly part of – it's certainly part of Canada's past, Canada's history," the Foreign Affairs Minister said on a conference call from Bangkok Thursday.

Dr. Bethune is also remembered for his service along with other Canadian communists in the Spanish Civil War, where he pioneered the first mobile blood-transfusion service.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who arrived in a rickshaw July 11 to celebrate the new Bethune visitor's centre in his riding, told The Globe and Mail earlier this week the commemoration isn't about lionizing a disciple of Karl Marx.

"I don't think we're here to promote the communist principle," Mr. Clement said. "The thing about Dr. Bethune is that people see different things about him depending on their perspective," Mr. Clement said. "I think we as Conservatives can be comfortable that there's a message here broader than just his communism, that goes to his humanism and entrepreneurship."

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Dr. Bethune is also remembered for having developed his own medical tools, including the Bethune Rib Shears.

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