Notes from Medical Montreal (2) : Health Activists

In Health Activism, Montreal Medicine by Steve Palmer0 Comments

Montreal is a city with a singular history of health activism — one that, on closer consideration, has a distinct anti-fascist and humanist character.  I’m reminded of this when I come out of Guy-Concordia metro station and run smack into the statue of Norman Bethune.


Bethune outside Tim Horton’s

Though originally from a small town in Ontario, Bethune was based in Montreal from 1928 to 1936.  He worked in the thoracic surgery unit at the Royal Vic under Edward William Archibald, and as Head of Surgery at the Hopital de Sacré Coeur.  When the Depression hit, the Montreal context transformed Bethune’s radical temper into political activism.  Surrounded by the destitute and medically needy, he advocated for government provision of health services as a member of the Group for the Security of People’s Health.  This led to involvement with the Communist Party, trips to the Soviet Union, pro-Republican health work in the Spanish Civil War against the rise of international fascism and, most famously, participation with Mao’s armies in the Communist Chinese fight against fascist Japan’s invasion of the north.


Bethune died in China in 1939 having organized the medical and surgical network of the Communist armies and worked himself to death operating on wave upon wave of casualties.  In the process he became a secular saint and a hero of the Chinese revolution — something made clear in Donald Brittain’s still riveting 1964 documentary, Bethune, which you can watch for free on the National Film Board of Canada’s great website:

Bethune is, wonderfully, at once the best known Canadian doctor in the world and virtually unknown inside his own country.  I myself had a few brushes with the Canadian doctor of greatest notoriety within Canada, one who ranks with Bethune as a medical activist legend with a strong Montreal connection.

Ours was an immigrant family — that special privileged White English immigration that meant that, though a “new Canadian”, I would never know a second of prejudice or discrimination — but an immigrant family nonetheless.  We lived near the refineries of Montreal East, and as luck would have it our family’s general practitioner was Dr. Henry Morgentaler.

I spoke to my mother recently about Morgentaler the GP.  She remembered marvelling at his ability to communicate with patients.  There were people from many different backgrounds in his waiting room, and Morgentaler seemed to be able to speak to them all in their own language and make them feel comfortable.  With five kids, she had more than one occasion when a bout of pernicious childitis would finally confound her domestic medicine skills and therapeutic arsenal.  Morgentaler made house calls, and he was a brilliant diagnostician — he could “put people in the right context”, was how my mother phrased it.

Born and raised in Lodz at a bad time to be a Polish Jew, Henekh Morgentaler lost most of his family to Nazi German racist state violence during the Holocaust.  After his father was murdered by the Gestapo, Morgentaler was sent with his mother and brother to Auschwitz, then after a few days with his brother to Dachau (their mother perished at Auschwitz).  When the 22-year-old Morgentaler was liberated by the US Army just 9 days before the Allied victory in Europe, he weighed 70 pounds.

Fortunately, Henry Morgentaler’s horrific displacement ended in Canada where he graduated in Medicine from Université de Montréal in 1953. From 1967 until his death in 2013, Morgentaler was a selfless crusader for a woman’s right to reproductive health and abortion care.  A staunch humanist, he considered this a basic human right. While establishing abortion clinics across the country, he endured systematic harassment and persecution by governments and judicial systems, and threats and fire-bombings by anti-abortion extremists in many Canadian jurisdictions.  He was repeatedly arrested and charged but juries tended not to find him guilty of anything, and Morgentaler finally won a decisive Supreme Court of Canada ruling that overturned the federal law against abortion in 1988.  In 2008 he was awarded the Order of Canada, and was decorated, appropriately, by another new Canadian and long-time resident of a working-class Montreal neighbourhood, and whose family had also been the victim of right-wing tyranny.

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But back to Montreal East in the early 1960s, and my encounter with this future legend. On one visit when I was maybe 2, after a few stitches to the head, Dr. Morgentaler tried to take the edge off by holding out a handful of different coloured suckers and inviting me to take one. Announcing “I’ll take the green one,” I promptly snatched the green one from his hand.  Taken aback by this “lucky guess”, since kids my age weren’t supposed to be able to distinguish colours by name yet, he repeated the offer, this time as an experiment.  Reproducing my feat, I verbally chose “the red one”, and followed up with a second targeted grab.  At that point, no doubt fearing for his sucker supply, he cut me off but, to my father’s delight — and generously overlooking the fact that I’d crawled head-first into the protruding corner of a wall — pronounced me a bright little tyke and predicted great things for me.

It didn’t quite turn out that way, but I still feel special to have been a small part of Morgentaler’s practice.

Montreal’s tradition of health activism began a new chapter while I was there recently doing my research.  This time it wasn’t a physician taking the lead, or even a healthcare worker; it was a citizen activist who interrupted the press conference of Quebec’s Minister of Culture and Communications to protest against an austerity-driven restructuring of health services (the proposed Bill 20) that many suspect will drastically reduce women’s access to abortion services.

Neda Topoloski, a member of FEMEN Canada, bared her breasts to the media, then covered them with a tee-shirt that had an arrow pointing to her nether regions, where white underpants had been coloured blood red.  The tee-shirt bore the words, “Mon utérus, ma priorité!” — “My Uterus, My Priority!” — a slogan she shouted along with “No to Bill 20!” before being led away by police.

She and her fellow activists are pitted against a formidable foe who is himself a medical figure of some prominence: Phillipe Couillard, the current Prime Minister of Quebec and a former Minister of Health.  Like Morgentaler, Couillard is a graduate of Medicine at U de M, and he follows in a long line of Montreal neurosurgeons who’ve played a significant role in public life, starting in the 1930s with the great Wilder Penfield.

I would be willing to place a large bet that if Bethune and Morgentaler were still alive their allegiance and political energies would be with Neda over their fellow Montreal medico.  Any takers?

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