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Chester Alvin Ronning was an outspoken diplomat whose life accomplishments were to create a bridge between the East and West. He did a tremendous amount of work to achieve mutual understanding and friendship between Canada and China. Ronning was a man of a thousand interests: a homesteader, horse-breaker, teacher, politician, military intelligence officer, secret peace negotiator, author and diplomat in five countries. Ronning was characterized as an exceptional man, full of integrity, a lively curiosity, humour, modesty and consideration for others, while being a shrewd and influential diplomat. He was remembered most for his profound understanding and passionate devotion for China and its people.
Chester Ronning was born to missionary parents Halvor and Hannah Ronning (nee. Rorem) in Fancheng, China on December 13, 1894. He was one of seven children: Nelius, Almah, Harold, Hazel, Lily, and Talbert. He spoke only fluent Mandarin Chinese, and no English until the age of six, learning Norwegian as his second language and English as his third. In 1907, he returned to Alberta at the age of 14 with his Norwegian immigrant family after his mother died. The family settled on a farm and went to school at Bardo, a tiny community 50 km southeast of Edmonton. A teacher by profession, Ronning graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BSc degree and spent several years of study at the University of Alberta obtaining an MA degree. He served overseas with the Canadian Army as a sapper in World War I and later as a pilot with the Royal Air Force. He married his wife Inga Marie (nee. Horte) in 1918, and the following year became the assistant principal of an Edmonton public school for two years.
He would later return to China in 1922 as the vice-principal of a Peking school for five years, but the political upheaval of the period would force him out of the country and back to Alberta. As an adult, he served as a senior Canadian diplomat in Chongqing and developed an international reputation for his knowledge of the Far East. He sat as a Camrose MLA for the United Farmers of Alberta from 1932 to 1935 and later became provincial leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Ronning was principal of the Camrose Lutheran College from 1927-1942. During World War II, he served as an intelligence officer for the Royal Canadian Air Force and went to Ottawa as head of a “discrimination unit,” analyzing radio messages from German U-boats in the Atlantic.
After the war ended, he began his diplomatic career by joining Canada’s External Affairs department and became the first secretary to the Canadian embassy in Chungking from 1945-1951, becoming widely known as a friend of China. He later became minister to Iceland and ambassador to Norway; high commissioner to India from 1957-1964; and a Canadian delegate to the eighth and 19th general assemblies of the United Nations. At the 1954 Geneva conference on Indochina, Ronning was the only member of a western delegation who could speak to Premier Zhou Enlai in Chinese. As a result of his strong friendship with Zhou, Ronning was able to obtain the release from China of the last Canadian prisoner of the Korean War, Squadron Leader Andy Mackenzie.
In the winter of 1966 during the Vietnam War, he received an urgent message from Ottawa. The retired diplomat visited Hanoi where he obtained an unconditional North Vietnamese offer of peace negotiations if the Americans stopped bombing the north. Ronning took this reply to the Americans, but they would not agree to stop bombing the north and began bombing oil storage depots in Hanoi and Haiphong immediately after Ronning’s second visit. When he returned home, he became an outspoken opponent of American involvement in Vietnam. Ronning was an untiring advocate of the communist People’s Republic of China and of its admission to the United Nations. He heartily endorsed Canadian recognition of Communist China long before the goal was reached in 1970. He was also a longtime supporter of Mao Tse Tung and his philosophies. He stated that with Mao’s guidance, the Chinese people were liberated through their newfound literacy and Chinese women were liberated through a shift in viewpoint from being viewed as no more important than furniture, to being viewed as citizens and people.
Even after he retired from the diplomatic service in 1965, Ronning was a lifelong diplomat who continued to make contacts for Canada. He was a Westerner who maintained a unique rapport with the Chinese regardless of who they were, making friendships with both young and old on his visits to China. The Chinese premier personally invited Ronning and his family to China for a trip, with Ronning eventually making four trips to China after 1971, although he was still retired.
Ronning received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Waterloo Lutheran University (1964). He was named a companion of the Order of Canada (1972) and also received the Alberta Order of Excellence. In 1980, after two years of production, the hour-long biographical film on Ronning’s life entitled China Mission: The Chester Ronning Story was released and played to full houses at Edmonton’s Centennial Library. It was produced by Edmonton’s NFB studio and directed by Edmonton-born Tom Radford.
Ronning and his late wife Inga (d. 1968) had six children: Audrey, Sylvia, Meme, Alton, Kyeryn, and Harmon, and 24 grandchildren. Ronning retired in 1965 and enjoyed painting, reading, and sculpting in his Camrose home filled with the treasured books, paintings, sculptures and other souvenirs of a lifetime of travel. He authored and published an autobiographical account entitled A Memoir of China in Revolution: From the Boxer Rebellion to the People's Republic in 1974.
He made a final journey to his birthplace of Fancheng in China to celebrate his 89th birthday, as a request to his family due to his failing health. The people of the whole county came to welcome him as if they were celebrating a grand festival. Ronning died of pneumonia early New Year’s Eve, 1984 at Bethany Nursing Home in Camrose, after battling poor health for some time. He was 90 years old. A public funeral service was held at Messiah Lutheran Church in Camrose on January 4, 1985.
In 1991, the lieutenant-governor of British Columbia (David Lam) donated $35,000 of his own money to Camrose Lutheran University College in order to help build a new $4 million library honouring Ronning. The library’s plans were to house Ronning’s personal papers relating to his Canadian diplomatic career. The Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life was officially launched on March 25, 2006 at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta. In 2013, a biography of Ronning was published, entitled The Remarkable Chester Ronning: Proud Son of China. The book was written by Dr. Brian L. Evans, a history professor at the University of Alberta.
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J. Vandenberg Apr. 2021.
Information for history taken from records.