Unveiling and Dedication of the Statue of Dr. Norman BethuneGravenhurst, Ontario,
Saturday, August 19, 2000
When I stand here and look at that shrouded statue – and I know what's behind it – I have to say that it is, in a way, the covering of something that I have known about for a very long time, both in my personal and professional life. That is, it's a statue of Norman Bethune – a legendary, even mythical, figure in Canadian life who, as I say, professionally and personally has made me feel very much that this is an extraordinary person and an extraordinary way of having lived a life which in one sense was deeply and profoundly Canadian, and in another, went beyond national boundaries to rise to a level, not just of internationalism, but of a kind of cosmic greatness which people now all over the world recognize. And it all started here, in Gravenhurst, in that little house, in that manse, in Muskoka.
Growing up here, he must have felt that he had established very, very firm roots. And that statue, and this whole place, stands on pre-Cambrian rock – that is, rock that we don't know the age of, rock that lasts for all time and has been here, as far as we know with our limited human intelligence and our limited lifespan as human beings, forever. But this atmosphere, probably a very cozy, very happy middle-class atmosphere in a small town in very secure Ontario, did not seduce him to becoming a doctor for the wealthy and the well-healed.
I think that with all the beliefs that he had he probably wouldn't even have approved of having a statue of himself. He didn't do what he did for recognition. He didn't do it so that one day we'd all be gathered around here to say "Oh, a statue of Dr. Norman Bethune." Everything he did, if you look at the evidence of his life, was done because he felt it was the right thing to do, because he believed it.
I said that professionally my life crossed his. And that's true, because in the past I interviewed people who have known Bethune – Ted Allan who wrote the biography The Scalpel and the Sword, and who fought in the Spanish Civil War and saw Bethune on the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War taking his mobile transfusion unit, which he had invented, around on the fields on a mule. I also was able to have an interview with the nurse who worked with him directly in developing that transfusion technique and who told me that she truly believed that he was the most extraordinary human being she had ever met. She was a very down-to-earth, flat kind of lady who had pragmatism right down to her very finger and toe nails. And when she told me that, I really believed it.
I think that he was also an extraordinarily courageous person – somebody who really said what he believed, who spoke up for what he believed, who believed in freedom, who believed in the right of human beings to express themselves and never to submit to any kind of tyranny. Otherwise, he would not have done what he did with his life. He was always outspoken, no matter what the consequences. He is the stuff of legends and of also the way legends get to be told to us now as fiction. He is the inspiration for the wonderful character Jerome Martel in Hugh MacLennan's great novel The Watch that Ends the Night. I would give those two books, The Watch that Ends the Night and The Scalpel and the Sword, to anyone being introduced to Bethune.
In the ferment of the 30s, Bethune spoke out for the downtrodden, he spoke out with the victims of totalitarianism. He very much identified with them, he believed in what he said. And all this on the background of being a brilliant thoracic surgeon who had invented or redesigned twelve medical and surgical instruments between 1929 and 1936. He was somebody who had such physical courage – and I'm sure a lot of you know this – that he actually operated on himself and punctured his own lung when he had tuberculosis, experimentally but also because he wanted to know what it was like. And there's a man who really could identify, not only with the other but with understanding from himself what his feelings were, to transfer those to the other.
He believed also in the welfare of others. He said – as he was an early proponent of what we now call medicare – "The best form of providing health protection would be to change the economic system that produces ill health, to liquidate ignorance, poverty and unemployment. The practice of each individual purchasing his own health care does not work. It is unjust, inefficient, wasteful and completely outmoded." He was a realist then, Bethune. He said, if we can't change the way society operates, if we can't say that we can liquidate poverty and inequalities, then we must make sure that other things like medical care for people come up to a certain standard to help, to even out those inequalities.
He was perhaps impetuous, definitely brilliant, and he was totally impossible. He was an extremely difficult person – difficult in his personal relationships – but he managed to bind to him people who remained loyal long after his death. People who would always understand that they had met somebody in their lives who, as Ted Allan reminds us, showed that "a man who need not live, nor end his life, in hopelessness, but can experience greatness of thought and of action. We need to be reminded that there are people, heroic in stature and action, who bring hope and inspiration to the rest of us. Norman Bethune was such a man."
It gives me great pleasure to be here today honouring this man who has done so much, not only for Canada and for medicine, but for humanity in general. To Norman Bethune, helping people was much more than an ideal, it was reality. When he was in Spain and China he did what he had to do, because he believed there was a need for it.
Norman Bethune reminds us that wherever there is a need, there will be extraordinary people who will come out to meet that need. It's no wonder that his name is known by people all over the world. And in China, the Chinese know his name as Bet-u-wan, the White One Sent. And that one was sent from here, from this rock, from Gravenhurst.