Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Entr'acte - Montreal, Toronto, North Bay and Back in Three Days

At home in the UK, on holiday from China, winter break, a cold wind howls and I keep looking at flights to Montreal. I want to go visit my daughter, but I dread the flight – Hurricane Candy, or Doris, or Elfie has just hit and stories of planes flying sideways across Arctic skies petrify me. Then I get a call from Beijing that Dr. Sun, who organizes “People inspired by Norman Bethune”, has set up a series of interviews for us. This decides me, and before I know it I am sitting at Heathrow after downing three Americanos waiting for the Montreal flight.

Funny how things don’t change and how one misses certain touches. The waiting room looks North American, if you follow me. North American dressed for winter with Canada Goose coats tucked ready for the hit-me-quick cold that hits quick when getting out of the airport. Girls with sleek streaked hair, long legged and sexual, stride with an air I always associate with Montreal – one of certainty, of going somewhere.

I settle back excited and think of Dr. Norman Bethune.

I first heard about him when my friend, the Montreal sculptor Stanley Lewis, dragged me down to Guy Concordia one cold winter’s day, to a statue of a man standing between Tim Horton’s and Guy Metro: “Do you know who that is?” He pointed to the large marble statue of a man dressed in the garb of yesteryear. I told him I didn’t have a clue. Stanley was ruffled by my reply, telling me most Canadians didn’t have a clue either, and sat me down to listen to the story of Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor who had died in China, became a hero and a legend, but was disliked by many at the time in Canada because he was a communist.

I have no idea who this photo is by, but this is how I remember meeting Bethune that day, with the pigeons sitting on his head …That was many years ago now, 2005, in the year of the Rooster.

Bethune with Birds - source unknown

Yet…here we are, 12 years later, in the year of the Rooster once again, and I have The Phoenix in hand - the comprehensive and final biography of Bethune by Roderick and Sharon Stewart - as we dive past Ireland, and shudder as we hit over the Atlantic ocean.

Winter is sweet in Montreal as I arrive.  Snow has fallen and it is fresh and slow and vibrant and colorful. I am happy to be back, albeit for such a short time. An entr’acte.

Montreal Snow Shoes - McCord Museum - public domain

Get to my daughter’s house to be informed I need to help her move - now!  

So we pack boxes and laugh over wine, and though jet lag brings me to my knees this is typical Montreal spirit. Things move quickly, things are intense, and friends help with the useless bags of summer dresses never to be worn again, and old sweet wrappers and faded roses from the boy I used to call the Navel Officer, as he came up to my daughter’s stomach button! Then as we pound our way across snow lined streets to her new home in Hochelaga, I realize how out of step I am and how I have forgotten what a transient town Montreal is.

In China, despite the modernity which is sweeping back the old at a rate one cannot keep up with, families keep the old homes going, even if they have to work far, far away - there is always a home base. Montrealers are nomads in many ways, like Bethune whom I am warming to the more I read about him.

I have seen most films made on him - Chinese, English, adaptations, interviews - and the brightest and most beautifully carved is the film by Donald Brittan: Hero of Our Time (1964). Can be viewed at: https://www.onf.ca/film/bethune_heros_de_notre_temps/)

But right now, here I am eating pasta with my daughter and her new Congolese flat mates in snowed up Montreal, and tomorrow I will be taking the Megabus to Toronto, then up another 6 hours to North Bay to begin the first of a series of interviews in Canada with Bethune’s remaining family, and with Scott of Parks Canada who presides over Bethune’s house in Gravenhurst, then back down to Montreal to meet Dr. Sun and the doctors from McGill for this documentary which I have held locked away in that part of my brain for so many years.

Ontario North - deep winter

 Stanley Lewis took my hand and we walked slowly to Tim Horton’s for coffee. “Someone needs to tell a different story, not the same old communist story about this man. Go and ask the Chinese, they know, you know. When I went there they bowed to me because I was a Canadian, because of Bethune.” I never forgot Stanley’s words. So I ask, and continue to ask, and will continue to ask again - the backbone and structure of the film, through the eyes of the Chinese.

A week has flown by. I didn't see the friends I wanted to, I didn't hang out along Montreal streets the way I wanted to, yet I now sit on the plane back to China with 20 hours of footage in hand. I am excited. Ying and I found so much more than a museum and a man with a communist past, we found the story, or, I should say 3 entwining stories - or more.

And that, my friends is that - for now. Next month we head off to the front lines where he worked as a doctor to interview a nurse who worked with him - she is 97 !!!

Happy coming of Spring !!!

Wise Happy Spring Owl - drawing by Alyosha Pope

Next blog post - SPRINGTIME

School starts. Anna’s quest for Canada.  A new documentary class and a trip to South Korea.


  1. Nice post Jeannette. Makes me feel nostalgic for Montreal, but I haven't gone anywhere yet. Can you still feel transient if you are not moving? Lost me Dad recently and in a strange way that makes me feel transient, like I have moved along my lifeline without wanting to.

  2. I love the way your writing can transport me to see what you see.

  3. Merci Jeannette. Quel plaisir de te lire comme d'habitude