As we approach Remembrance Day, a storm of controversy has erupted over a “white poppies” campaign led by a small group of pacifist University of Ottawa students. As opposed to the traditional red poppy as a symbol of remembering the sacrifice of our soldiers, the white poppy instead symbolizes peace (or, for some supporters, the civilian deaths of the wars). According to one of the group’s members, “young people don’t want to celebrate war…we want to work for peace.”
The campaign has attracted plenty of attention. SUN News, in its typical incendiary fashion, decried that “OTTAWA STUDENTS DON’T CARE IF ‘WHITE POPPY’ OFFENDS VETERANS”. Veterans’ Affairs Minister Julian Fantino called it “totally disrespectful”, and stated that “it really does show a total lack of respect for what, in fact, Remembrance Day stands for”, a position that has been shared by the Royal Canadian Legion, who are responsible for the red poppy campaign.
Let’s take a step back here. Firstly, the white poppy is nothing new. It was introduced by British pacifists in 1926, and has enjoyed a meagre presence in many Commonwealth countries since. While there is a vocal opposition against white poppies here in Canada, the Royal British Legion has no opinion on the matter, stating that “what you wear is a matter of choice, the Legion doesn’t have a problem whether you wear a red one or a white one, both or none at all”.
I’m with the British Legion on this one — does the colour of the poppy really matter? I fail to see how wearing a white poppy in any way denigrates the sacrifice of the tens of thousands of Canadians who have given their lives in conflict, or disrespects our veterans and those who currently serve. It is not about villifying those brave women and men. It is a different way for those to think about the conflicts of the past, who are uncomfortable with very idea of war. To supporters of the white poppy campaign, it is about using a symbol of peace, rather than a symbol of violent conflict.
There are plenty of reasons why one can criticize the white poppy campaign. The student interviewed by SUN News insinuates that the red poppy is a celebration of war, glorifying conflict and our soldiers killing enemies. That is far from the truth and a misguided interpretation of the poppy’s symbolism. The red poppy is not about glorifying war, it is about remembering the bravery and the sacrifice of those who fought and continue to fight for Canada. It is about not forgetting the brutal reality of war and the massive human cost. The white and red poppy campaigns seem to have the same objective, even if those responsible for each don’t see that.
What I have found most disturbing about the controversy is the vitriol that has been flung at those who support white poppies. They have been shamed, threatened with violence and called traitors. This is wrong. There is no ‘right’ way to remember, and the rhetoric used against the white poppies movement is reticient of the very militarism and jingoistic nationalism that our soldiers fought against. We should simply be glad that people are remembering, be it with a red or white poppy – or none at all, for that matter. It is a personal choice based on personal beliefs and values, which should not be seen as disrespecting those who fought to defend the very right to have such values and make choices that fall outside of mainstream thought. We should respect those with differing beliefs and not be offended by such choices. This is a fundamental value in Canada, and it should be no different just because it is Remembrance Day.
I choose to wear a red poppy, and I will remember those who bravely fought and died for a cause that we believed in. I will also hope for a peaceful future where we do our best to avoid future bloodshed unless absolutely necessary. If you choose to wear a white poppy, or none at all, that’s fine too. We all have a choice in how we remember, and isn’t that what November 11th is really all about?
Graeme Archibald is a Political Science Honors graduate from the University of Alberta.
Creative Commons Photograph courtesy of SyzmonB on Flickr.