Norman Bethune

Is the bizarre brouhaha over who stood up for the Chinese national anthem and what its words are evidence of a serious ideological split within Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative Party of Canada?

If you think stuff like that only matters in places like Communist China and North Korea, maybe you should think again!

Apparently public signs of an ideological spat can signal trouble among party cadres, not to mention the apparatchiks who support various party ideological factions, in pretty well any old secretive and authoritarian regime.

That said, it may require the services of a skilled “Kremlinologist” to get to the bottom of the battle within Harper’s CPC that began on July 11 when Treasury Board President Tony Clement attended a ceremony in his Ontario riding marking the reopening of a spruced-up museum honouring a Communist saint all but forgotten anywhere but China.

It does seem as if the fight between people associated with ultra-right-wing Calgary West MP Rob Anders and ideological moderates like Clement and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird over tax money spent on the museum may be a sign of deepening fissures within the CPC.

Alas, the mainstream media has paid scant attention to this seemingly silly affair, and that only to dismiss it as an insignificant and mildly amusing tempest in a teapot, not as the important indicator of internal struggle it may be.

Only Sun News Network, Harper’s semi-official state media, seems to be taking the storm with the kind of humourless gravity it deserves — leastways, if you happen to view neoconservative ideology as seriously as do the gang of four or so MPs closest to our Dear Leader, Harper. This group includes Anders.

Charles Adler, a Sun News commentator associated with the extreme neoconservative element within the Harper CPC, seems to have been the first to attack Clement, Member of Parliament for the well outfitted and brightly painted Parry Sound Muskoka riding. (No starvation among the peasants there, thank you very much!)

On July 12, Adler took issue with Clement’s role in the decision by the Harper government to spend $2.5 million upgrading the former home of Norman Bethune, the Communist Canadian physician who became a hero to millions of Chinese for fighting alongside Mao Zedong in the late 1930s. The “shrine,” as Sun Media keeps calling the well-appointed little museum on the site of Bethune’s former home, just happens to be in the general vicinity of the riding’s famous gazebo, sparkling public washrooms and glass-smooth sidewalks built for the G20 conference in faraway Toronto back in June 2010.

Now, it seems most likely given his record that the moderate Clement wasn’t thinking about ideology at all when he championed sprucing up the museum, which is said to be extremely popular with visitors from China. More likely he had in mind the ice-cream cones his constituents could sell to Chinese tourists and his well-known penchant for letting no local gazebo go unimproved if Ottawa is paying.

Nevertheless, Bethune’s Communist history provided the opportunity for party ideologues seem to have been waiting for to snipe at moderates identified as supporting the project.

Having pretty well eliminated the old “Red Tories” from the CPC after its takeover by the far-right Reform Party during what’s now known as the Invasion of the Party Snatchers in 2003, this may indicate the radicals now see an opportunity to purge the party of its moderates as well.

Bethune, who by all accounts wasn’t a very nice person at all, succumbed to his own sloppy surgical techniques in China in 1939 and soon after was raised to the status of official saint by that country’s ideologues.

Rather like the War of 1812 with the Americans, the Communist Bethune seems at first glance like an odd choice for a pro-American market-fundamentalist party like Harper’s. But that is before we remember that the prime minister’s commercial backers would very much like to see doors opened to more business with Mainland China. (The phrase “Mainland China,” by the way, is an ideologically freighted way of saying you understand the capitalist island of Taiwan is not part of Communist China, even though both Taiwan’s leaders and those of the mainland insist it is. Well, whatever…)

As Adler’s shouts subsided, Anders himself, one of the PM’s gang of four, appeared on the semi-official state broadcaster to condemn the project — although he was more circumspect about attacking Clement by name, leaving that task to his well-trained ideological attack dogs.

Speaking of whom, the fray was next joined by Ezra Levant, another Sun News bloviator with impeccable CPC ideological credentials and close personal connections to both Anders and the prime minister. On Bastille Day, Levant eviscerated Clement anew in one of his trademark TV tirades.

The sharply observant Levant, who can spot an ideologically suspect lapel pin at 40 yards, apparently noticed Clement smiling and nodding in time with the Chinese national anthem in a video clip of the opening of the renovated museum.

Levant owns the real scoop in this affair, because it was he who looked up the words to the Chinese anthem — presumably on Wikipedia, the principal source for Sun News’s crack research team. “It’s a war song,” he huffed. “Here’s what Clement was smiling along to…” And, indeed, as he observed, so goes the March of the Volunteers: “Brave the enemy’s fire, March on! March on! …”

Sun News was all over the Communist song’s lyrics, and the fact Clement stood up for it, like an angry bull to a red flag — no doubt holding in reserve for the moment the certain knowledge Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair, notoriously the holder of a French passport, has stood for that country’s anthem, La Marseillaise, which goes, “…Formez vos bataillons, Marchons! Marchons!…”

Another Sun News yammering head, Brian Lilley, also piled into the affray, but, frankly, there’s only so much of this stuff one can watch without requiring sedation.

While the full meaning of this dispute is not yet clear, it is evident the tag-team attacks on Clement by the PM’s tame commentators, and the defences mounted by other party moderates like Baird, not to mention defences by the Globe and Mail and elements within the Prime Minister’s Office, signal a widening of the rift between the CPC’s most radical cadres and its moderates.

Meanwhile, in the prime minister’s home city, another ideological battle erupted over the words of a different national anthem.

This time it was the bilingual Canadian national song, O Canada, a version of which sung at the Calgary Stampede included only the English words.

Perhaps the Stampede’s organizers were concerned the French version would needlessly arouse passions among the PM’s Protestant fellow believers with its Catholic-sounding war cry of “As is thy arm ready to wield the sword/ So also is it ready to carry the cross/ Thy history is an epic/ Of the most brilliant exploits/ Thy valour steeped in faith!”

Then again, maybe it was just that no one in Cowtown speaks French. Except for Mulcair, of course, and he was wisely only passing through.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...