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By Karen Herland
As the crowd waited in the FOFA Gallery for the official launch of the year of Homage to Norman Bethune on Oct. 14, Pierrette Wong, Director General of the Chinese Community and Cultural Centre of Montreal (CCCCM), leaned over and said, “he’s been a hero of mine for a long time. I am so impressed by him.”
Wong is far from alone. At the standing room only ceremony to unveil the newly restored statue of this hero in Place Bethune, the centrepiece of Quartier Concordia, local, national and international figures gathered to both pay their respects to the man who left Montreal for China 70 years ago and to attest to his impact and influence.
“Whenever I go to China, from the North to the South, when I say I’m from Canada, people respond with ‘Norman Bethune’,” attested President Judith Woodsworth. “Then they say ‘Celine Dion’," she added to appreciative laughter from the audience.
Woodsworth joined Mayor Gérald Tremblay, Chinese Ambassador Lan Lijun and former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, currently working on a biography of Bethune, at the podium to reflect on his life and legacy.
Each of the speakers remarked on the scope of Bethune’s activities and contributions, identifying him as a doctor, surgeon, inventor, artist, poet and ‘citizen of the world.’ Although he was born in Ontario and traveled extensively, Montreal was his adopted home, as Mayor Tremblay pointed out. Bethune lived here for a decade before making the trips to Spain and China that had a tremendous impact on the lives of those there.
While in China, he provided health services to thousands displaced by war, under often overwhelming conditions. He contracted blood poisoning while performing surgery and never recovered.
For most of the time he spent in Montreal, he lived around what is now Concordia, and his statue now stands at the corner of De Maisonneuve and Guy. As Clarence Epstein, Concordia’s Director of Special Projects and Cultural Affairs, points out, it is fitting that the statue came to that corner, considering Bethune’s attachment to the neighbourhood, and to the city. “Bethune, the renaissance man, is an incarnation of Montreal in its renaissance.”
He added that the decision of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada to recognize Bethune as a figure of national importance, the donation of the Bethune statue to Montreal by the People’s Republic of China and the creation of Concordia (the name chosen over Norman Bethune University) all occurred in the mid-’70s. That these events continue to resonate today is no surprise.
Mayor Tremblay remarked on Concordia’s role in bringing together the various participants in the coming year’s events at what he acknowledged as a very emotional ceremony.
In addition to the two exhibitions currently at the FOFA Gallery, and their
accompanying symposia (see related story) and companion shows at the McCord Museum and the Atwater library. A permanent exhibition is slated to open in Shanghai next spring.
Each of the speakers also took time to acknowledge the humanitarian legacy of Bethune, a man committed to social justice who, in the words of Clarkson “truly understood, from the beginning of his life, that human beings are the same around the world.”
Donald Sutherland, who portrayed Bethune in two different films earlier in his career, reinforced those sentiments. Although he could not attend the ceremony, he sent a letter he had written to be read by his friend, radio personality Terry Haig. In it he urged people to consider Bethune as a symbol of internationalism and selflessness and to take the time to walk through the newly appointed Place Bethune and “acknowledge his paradigm and do our level best to adopt it.”
Chinese Ambassador Lan added that the ‘humanitarian and hero’ is “a symbol of friendship and a witness to the development of relations between [China and Canada].” Lan hoped that a renewal of attention to Bethune would "inspire younger people to work for further growth of that partnership.” Certainly Concordia is poised to participate in that growth. Currently, over half of all university students from China who are studying in Quebec are enrolled here.
Clarkson contributed several other anecdotes from her research for the biography commissioned by Penguin books as one of 18 volumes honouring exceptional Canadians. She spoke of Bethune’s dedication to medicine as a right that should never be tied to ability to afford treatment, “he believed doctors should be treated as civil servants and paid as such.” She also spoke of the weekend art classes and gallery excursions he organized for underprivileged children in Montreal, and of the health clinic he established with the YMCA’s George Mooney in Verdun. She noted that Bethune is the only foreigner Mao Zedong ever wrote about. He wrote his essay based on a single meeting with the man Clarkson described as "impetuous, brilliant and totally impossible. He bound people to him."
Epstein remarked that Bethune's current appreciation by Montrealers is sadly nominal compared to the respect he has earned in China. The coming year aims to change that with events sponsored by Concordia, City of Montreal the Centre d'Histoire de Montréal, Tourisme Montreal, the CCCCM, the McCord and the Aubin Foundation.