Patrick Luciani is a Toronto-based writer.
The Western world is toppling statues of historical villains at a furious pace. Tributes to everyone from Christopher Columbus, U.S. presidents, colonizers, Confederates, or really, anyone suspected of being on the wrong side of the current political times, are falling around the world.
But the process of eliminating bad guys tends to inevitably get out of hand. Winston Churchill’s statue in London, for instance, had to be covered up for a recent anti-racism rally before the vandals got to it; apparently, helping to defeat the Nazis no longer qualifies as being on the right side of history.
It’s even open season on Christian symbols and statues of saints. That’s reminiscent of the French Revolution, when the Robespierre-led mobs defaced and destroyed such statues as they sought to turn Notre Dame into a “temple of reason.”
Not to be left out, we in Canada are on the way to taking Sir John A. Macdonald’s name off schools and getting rid of his statues, and are now moving on to other historical figures. The alteration and return of a monument to Samuel de Champlain in Orillia, Ont., has been delayed, but statues to Giovanni Caboto will probably be spared given that few recognize his name (hint: Canada’s Columbus). In the case of educator and legislator Egerton Ryerson, who wrote a report recommending special schools for Indigenous boys, an idea that helped lay the ground for the residential school system, I suspect taking down a statue would not be enough; the name of Toronto’s Ryerson University is surely not long for this world. And petitions are out to rename the streets that honour British politician Henry Dundas, because of his weak anti-slavery position. In short, we’re doing anything to rid ourselves of anyone with the taint of past sins.
But apparently, not all history is vulnerable.
One statue that remains unmolested is the one of Norman Bethune that sits peacefully on the campus of the University of Toronto. Yet, if ever there was a statue associated with the evils of a political idea, it is the good doctor’s. While his defenders will remind us of his courageous work saving lives during the war between Japan and China through his battlefield medical innovations, a complete story tells of a nasty and reckless surgeon who never quite earned the respect of his Canadian colleagues, and who sternly defended Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, whose regimes starved and killed millions.
The mythology surrounding Bethune didn’t originate in Canada; it was created by Mao himself in a famous essay read by schoolchildren throughout China. Today, we use Bethune’s memory to attract thousands of Chinese tourists to his birthplace in Gravenhurst, Ont.
The Chinese Communist system he believed in has gone on to cause atrocities – not just during the Cultural Revolution, but also in the 1989 slaughter at Tiananmen Square, in the disastrous one-child policy, and in the continuing oppression and internment of thousands of Uyghurs. And let’s not forget that the government that emerged from that system has illegally imprisoned two Canadians on trumped-up charges to blackmail our government over the Huawei affair. One would think this might merit some reaction by the cancelling community.
There might be a reason that Bethune has been left off the list of political targets: he was a Marxist supporter, and thus a philosophical friend of the modern left. It’s the same reason others on the left, from Tommy Douglas to suffragette Nellie McClung – who both supported eugenics as a solution to extreme mental illness and poverty – are often given a free ride.
But the worm is turning on this cancel culture. In the United States, the name of feminist hero Margaret Sanger is being erased from American history because of her defence of eugenics in the 1920s, despite her position on women’s rights and her founding of Planned Parenthood. Can Nellie McClung and Tommy Douglas be far behind?
Shakespeare was right when he wrote that whatever good people do will be buried with their bones, while their sins live on forever. In a world that loses its historical memory, you’ll find no understanding, no forgiveness and no mercy.
So leave Norman Bethune’s statue in peace and let it stand, warts and all – but let’s also leave the statues of Sir John A., and the memories of Nellie McClung and Tommy Douglas. Otherwise we risk entering a brave new world where history disappears, and all ideas merely favour the present.
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