Harper Tories embrace Marxist hero Dr. Norman Bethune as Canada seeks closer ties with China

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Governments have never been averse to using their heroes for political purposes, manipulating the myth to suit present goals.

But Treasury Board President Tony Clement is going to need a chiropractor to deal with the contortions required to enlist legendary Canadian doctor and avowed communist Norman Bethune in the Conservative government's drive for closer trade ties with China.

Clement was on hand Wednesday to open a new $2.5-million interpretive centre at Bethune's birthplace in Gravenhurst, Ont., which is in his riding.

Bethune Memorial House, operated as a historic site by Parks Canada, draws about 15,000 visitors a year, mostly tourists for China and Chinese-Canadians, the Globe and Mail reports. Those numbers could rise since Canada recently received long-awaited approved-destination status for Chinese tour groups.

Bethune is indeed a mythic figure in China, a hero in the Communist Party's revolutionary pantheon and subject of a famous essay on selflessness by Mao Zedong.

Bethune joined the Communist Party in 1935 after working as a doctor for the poor in Montreal. He went to Spain in 1936 to provide medical support to the Republican forces battling Franco's Fascists in the civil war, pioneering the use of mobile transfusion services at the front.

He arrived in China in 1938 and joined Mao's Eighth Route Army, which was fighting the invading Japanese.

Finding it impossible to treat the wounded at the army's fixed hospital, Bethune set up a mobile surgical system transported by two mules to bring treatment closer to the front — the forerunner of MASH units.

Bethune's marathon surgical sessions and the prospect that casualties at least had a chance of being treated at the front cemented his legend in China.

He died Nov. 12, 1939, of blood poisoning after accidentally cutting his finger during surgery. After Mao's forces triumphed in 1949, Bethune's body was reburied in a huge Cemetery of Martyrs and a large statue of him was erected there.

[Related: Canada to reveal next step in closer China ties]

Bethune's life was the subject of an epic Canadian biopic staring Donald Sutherland, Helen Mirren and Colm Feore, which received mixed reviews.

For the Tories, Bethune is a hero whose significance depends on what position you're viewing him from. And from where Clement stands, you can't even see the doctor's passionate Marxism.

"The thing about Dr. Bethune is that people see different things about him depending on their perspective," Clement told the Globe before the opening.

"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."

Entrepreneurship?

Well, yes, because besides being a brilliant surgeon, Bethune designed several new medical instruments, including the Bethune Rib Shears, which are still produced today.

"Human characters can be reinvented for a lot of purposes," Paul Evans, director of the University of British Columbia's Institute of Asian Research, told the Globe. "He was an innovator, yes, but not in the way Conservatives talk about market-based innovation."

For Clement, Bethune's story provides an instant connection with China.

"Part of their education is to learn about Dr. Bethune and his self-sacrifice for humanity, so it's a conversation-starter, something people recognize about Canada," he said.

"I don't think it necessarily seals the deal, but it's something we have on our side that we should be aware of."

Clement's rationale didn't sit well with the normally supportive Quebecor Newspaper group. Its QMI Agency reported the Prime Minister's Office "is standing behind a $2.5 million taxpayer-funded tourist trap dedicated to Canadian Maoist apologist Norman Bethune."

Upgrading the Bethune site's facilities is important to bolster tourism in Canada's "fragile economic recovery," spokesman Andrew MacDougall said.

Queen's University China expert Bruce Gilley said there's no harm in commemorating Bethune's legacy as a surgeon and inventor but it shouldn't be sugar-coated.

"Bethune was someone we would in our contemporary Western world call a useful idiot," he told QMI. "He more or less took leave of his moral compass and senses when he went to China and threw himself into the communist cause."