Health care in the Great White North


Before coming to Canada in 1967, I honestly knew of only two Canadians – Harry Jerome and Norman Bethune.

Jerome was an African born in Canada and a world-class sprinter who competed in the 1960, 1964 and 1968 Olympics. One of my schoolmates from Fremont High School in Los Angeles, Richard Stebbins, competed against Jerome in the 1964 Olympics. At one time in my arrested development I even believed Jerome was the only Black person in the Great White North.

I knew about Bethune because Chairman Mao Zedong mentioned him in The Quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong. I must confess many of my neighbours in South Central Los Angels were aware of Mao, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De and other leaders of the 1949 Chinese revolution.

Bethune (March 3, 1890-November 12, 1939) was a Euro-Canadian doctor in the 1930s who was a pioneer in socialized healthcare. He also worked in Spain and China to assist struggles against fascism in those countries. He was a medical innovator and developed the first mobile blood-transfusion service in Spain in 1936. Many feel that Bethune is as important to health care in Canada as Tommy Douglas.

Born in Gravenhurst, Ontario, Bethune was to the left of Douglas.

“Twenty-five years ago, it was thought contemptible to be called a socialist. Medical reforms, such as limited heath insurance schemes, are not socialized medicine. They are a bastard form of socialism produced by belated humanitarianism out of necessity,” Bethune said at the “Symposium on Medical Economics” in 1936.

There is a wide body of work both in film and books on the life and times of Bethune. The National Film Board of Canada and Hollywood also have work about him.

Many progressives recommend Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon’s volume, The Scalpel, The Sword. This work was published in 1952, revised in 1971 and reprinted in 1981. A Canadian film, Bethune: The Making of a Hero, was made in the 1990s.

Adrienne Clarkson, a Chinese Canadian and former Governor General of Canada from 1999 to 2005, has attempted to repackage Bethune and present him merely as a humanitarian in her new book Extraordinary Canadians Norman Bethune. Bethune was for the total transformation of the Canadian society and the world.

I and millions who have had children born in Canada are in debt to Bethune. My son was born on November 10, 1987. He wasn’t due until March of 1988. I was preparing for a trip to Africa when he was born prematurely. The child weighed in at one pound, nine ounces or 710 grams. He jumped the gun after only 26-and-a-half weeks. He stayed in Women’s College Hospital until April 4, 1988.

The issue of health care is the most burning question in the United States at the moment. President Barack Obama is under attack by the right for his stand on health care. President Obama seems to have taken single payers off the table in the current debate.

Bruce Dixon, Managing Editor of, has pointed out: “President Obama seems to have changed his promise from health care to coverage, not care. He’s turned the crusade for health care into a crusade for universal health insurance.”

When President Obama was a senator from Illinois, he spoke forcefully for a single payer system and said it should be a human right. Not so in 2009. President Obama has repeatedly said he is not a socialist. The hard right has repeatedly said that he is a Marxist who follows Karl and not Groucho, Harpo or Chico.

However, socialism’s obituary was prematurely written. Venezuela and other nations have joined Cuba and are opting for what they call 21st Century socialism.

Denzel Washington gave a splendid performance in the film, John Q, which was filmed in Toronto. However, Hollywood did not reward him for his role in this film. Many observers feel that Washington was punished for playing in a film that points out the contradictions in the health care system in the United States. He was rewarded for portraying a corrupt Los Angeles policeman in Training Day.

The Canadian health care system is clearly more humane than the American system, however, all is not well in the Great White North.

A recent report from Member of Parliament Olivia Chow revealed: “Presently, four million Canadians are unable to find a family doctor and nurses continue to be overburdened.

“In fact, each patient that is added beyond a nurse’s capacity increases patient mortality by 7 per cent while citizens who are unable to find a general practitioner go undiagnosed and minor illnesses become life-threatening.”

Norman (Otis) Richmond can be contacted

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