The passing of the poppy

By Benjamin Massey · November 9th, 2016 · 2 comments

For all that Canadians need to stretch their dollar just to pay rent these days, many of us each year still put a toonie in a box for a small, cheap disc of plastic and fabric. We do it to support those who fought, and remember those who died, for our and all future generations. It is a week of solemnity, when the airport-novel antics of professional controversialists and fear-mongers are put in perspective, when we reflect on our ancestors who looked true totalitarianism in the face and, with struggle and sacrifice, made the despots blink first. It is a time to honour the best of our civilization.

This is as close to solemnity as our secular society gets so, with irritating inevitability, poppy pressure can degrade from social to antisocial. As a symbol the poppy is often declared to be above politics, which is a sure sign that it is anything but. Particularly in Britain, where the Cookie Monster (yes, he) recently appeared on the BBC wearing a poppy. Most rightly considered this ridiculous, some didn’t, there was a fight. The Football Association has an annual battle with FIFA over whether its players may wear a poppy emblem on their uniforms during the Remembrance period. On the Irish island the poppy is a sectarian totem on account of the British Army’s role in the Troubles, though this is subsiding.

Canada’s irrationality is inconsequential by comparison. You can appear on television here without a poppy on your lapel, though a politician or a Peter Mansbridge would be ill-advised to. Tempests stay in teapots. This year’s controversy was Air Canada discouraging flight attendants from wearing poppies on duty for, literally, a few hours on Monday morning before cooler corporate heads had a coffee. This was a news story but not one you’d think people could get het up about: Air Canada reversed course before the ban even became public. Naturally some people got het up anyway, but they were mostly along the lines of “what can you expect from the bastards who lost my luggage fifteen years ago?” Not even The Rebel is revving up their boycott machine.

It takes more than a snub to get Canadians, if you will forgive an on-the-nose metaphor, up in arms. A couple years ago Vancouver saw a brief trend in white “peace poppies” among people who thought, or said they thought, the established Remembrance Day symbology glorified war. People got angry, for a while, until natural obscurity made the debate irrelevant. Some still wear them, and in the course of a Remembrance week you might just manage to see one. Even my alma mater‘s student newspaper, The Martlet, a pretty bolshie rag, has nothing but bad things to say about the white poppy. The installation of theft-proof poppy boxes in some towns, or the theft of Legion colours in others, are different tales but gain more attention than most thefts of flags or small change.

The ebbing of poppy sentiment is by comparison hardly news at all. The Royal Canadian Legion is, if not secretive, at least opaque about their receipts from the poppy drive, but branches who do release numbers tend to report decreases despite technology enabling donations by cell phone and an online Poppy Store. The Legion itself has struggled for years attracting (let alone integrating) the generation of new veterans who have an acknowledged claim to Legionary fellowship yet often prefer not to draw on it. In Ottawa and the big cities Remembrance Day ceremonies still go strong, but suburban and small-town parades are not what they once were.

It would be fun to blame those damned young people who hate our veterans and our history, but wrong. If anything, as respect for mental illness grows and literature becomes more accessible, the veteran’s near-unique traumas attract more sympathy today. One of the crowning infamies of the late Stephen Harper government, a government that successfully distributed a lot of contempt for a lot of people over a lot of years, was that they were reducing veterans’ services and betraying almost the only public trust you’d damned well expect the Conservatives to bear. They knew they’d blown it, too, and made a thousand promises to try and make up lost ground. They failed, but the Trudeau Liberals, despite intense youth popularity, are now feeling the heat for not redressing the balance quickly enough. On a rhetorical level, the shade of Nazi evil is still an easy go-to for every shoddy polemicist eager to rouse the people against his enemy. Then there’s the personal factor, the fact that we just had a war, and most of us know somebody who was in it, and in too many cases somebody who did not return.

The decline in Remembrance Day honours is no simple decline in remembrance, so what is it? Next to the Queen’s face on the money, the poppy and the Remembrance Day ceremony are the strongest cultural links Canada retains to the Old Commonwealth. Perhaps even stronger, for after all, when we pull out a $20 bill and accept our change, we are not taking a moment to acknowledge Her Majesty. Plenty of countries put the head of state on the money, but Remembrance Day is distinctly our own, in a large but antiquated sense of who “us” is.

The Americans do not wear the poppy. They escaped the bloodbaths of Ypres which brought it to prominence, and their memories linger more on the Second World War than the First. British emigres in that country have been known to run for the border and import a Canadian one. Yet even countries for whom there is one Great War and one Western Front have not joined us. The Germans, of course, lost, and that changes everything. French and Belgians know a thing or two about plants watered in sacrificial blood, and the poppy is a symbol they understand. But it is not worn. In France they wear the bleuet, a cornflower; in Belgium nothing at all.

They wear the poppy in Australia and New Zealand, though their most enduring Great War battlefield was not Belgium but Gallipoli, a name whose power in Anzac memory a Canadian can hardly comprehend, Dieppe to the power of Vimy Ridge. And local customs colour every aspect of this Commonwealth tradition, in exactly the way you’d expect: the British poppy is different from ours, the Australian and New Zealand poppies distinct from both and (less so) from each other. Even in lands like India and Hong Kong where the old Empire is long gone, it is by no means a forgotten symbol, though sometimes supplemented by, as an Indian example, the marigold.

No, the poppy is not above politics, not even here, where in addition to what it is designed for it cannot help but symbolize an order that’s dead or dying across the country. This symbolism did not come deliberately, and if any monarchist or pro-Commonwealth group tried to co-opt the poppy its members would be first in line with the tar and the feathers, but intent is never all that matters.

How old-fashioned, even to the friendly eye, it must all seem. A Remembrance Day service is probably the only occasion where an ordinary Canadian hears a public prayer, or sings “God Save the Queen,” or sees his local Canadian Forces unit on parade. In a Legion colour party the Red Ensign comes just behind the Maple Leaf, and it flies over our war memorials from Victoria to Vimy, but where else? Remembrance Day is about the past, the hint is in the name, but it is a past that, notwithstanding our universally-acknowledged, permanent duty to the honoured dead, many Canadians would sooner leave buried.

This is not a call for reform; oh God no. There are still those of us for whom the old flags and the old songs have power, and many are veterans, who have a veto. We will go on as we always have. But the act of memory does not rely on us. Even when the last poppy is laid on a cenotaph, and the last Legionnaires march past, and the last hymn is sung, that memory will remain. Very probably, in decades to come our new society will have a new way to honour it.

Think again on Britain, where the poppy has become such a public point of controversy: the British rage against the dying of the light, as they always have, and in Canada we let that good night come with, sometimes, a note of regret for parts of the day we miss. In each case it reflects a fundamental truth about each nation. This is the country we have chosen, and to rail against non-poppy wearers or to drum people up for ceremonies from the past is to treat a symptom, and ineffectively at that.