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Canada honours Bethune in 1972

In China, he's been a national hero since his death in 1939. But in his birthplace of Canada Dr. Norman Bethune was virtually unknown until the 1970s. His communist beliefs and unorthodox personality made him a controversial figure in Canada. His medical accomplishments, however, are irrefutable. Bethune cared for the wounded in wartorn Spain and China, and in the process revolutionized military medicine.

It's 1972. Bethune has been dead for more than three decades. And despite his hero status in China, only now is the federal government recognizing him as a "Canadian of national historic significance." Canada's External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp recently delivered a eulogy at Bethune's gravesite in China. The Ontario government is also getting in on the act - it just erected a plaque outside Bethune's former home in Gravenhurst, Ont. The CBC's Maurice Cutler reports on Bethune's "rebirth" in Canada.

Cutler interviews Hazen Sise, who worked with Bethune in Spain. Sise describes past attempts to memorialize Bethune in Canada, which didn't work because of "political prejudices" - Canada couldn't possibly glorify a Communist back then. But when Canada officially recognized the Communist People's Republic of China in 1970, the Trudeau cabinet soon realized it couldn't continue ignoring Bethune. 
. Prior to becoming prime minister in 1968, Pierre Trudeau had travelled to China several times. In 1961, he co-wrote a book with friend Jacques H├ębert about their Chinese travels. It was called Two Innocents in Red China.

. In 1970, Canada officially recognized the People's Republic of China, and the two countries exchanged diplomats for the first time. Prior to this, Canada had no diplomatic ties with the PRC. This change was the result of Prime Minister Trudeau's in-depth review of Canadian foreign policy, which focused a great deal on relationships with Asia-Pacific countries.

. As diplomatic ties strengthened between Canada and the PRC, Chinese visitors to Canada increasingly expressed surprise that there were no monuments to Bethune in Canada. Trudeau's government decided the Canadian government should publicly designate Bethune as a "Canadian of national historic significance." This occurred in August 1972.
. Prior to 1972, the official reason for Bethune being denied a designation was that his accomplishments took place outside of Canada.

. Many Canadians applauded the federal government for finally recognizing Bethune's heroic works. But a number of Canadians were much more skeptical. A 1972 Toronto Star article charged that Trudeau's move had more to do with boosting trade with China than with recognizing a Canadian hero: "The rehabilitation of Norman Bethune is a phoney move in a none-too-honourable game whose object is to get Canada into the big league somehow; any big league, so long as there's trade and profit in it."

. The federal government began designating certain people, places and events as being "of historic significance" in 1919. According to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (which administers the designation program), a person can be designated if they "individually or as the representative of a group made an outstanding and lasting contribution to Canadian history." The government usually commemorates these designations by installing a bronze plaque at a location associated with that person, place or event.

. By 2004, there were a total of 588 people designated as Canadians "of national historic significance." These include:
. Arthur Lismer, Canadian artist and founding member of the Group of Seven
. Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin
. Lester B. Pearson, former Canadian prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner

. The Conservative Ontario government beat the federal government to the punch in erecting a commemorative plaque for Bethune. The Archives of Ontario installed a plaque outside the Bethune home in Gravenhurst, Ont., in September 1972. The federal government had declared Bethune to be "of historical significance" a month earlier (August 1972), but didn't erect a plaque until several years later, after opening the Bethune house to the public as a museum in 1976.
Medium: Radio
Program: Five Nights
Broadcast Date: Sept. 12, 1972
Guest(s): Mitchell Sharp, Hazen Sise
Reporter: Maurice Cutler
Duration: 5:10
Photo: National Archives of Canada

Last updated: September 18, 2013

Page consulted on December 5, 2013

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