Lest We Forget: Red and White Poppies
November 6, 2013 § 2 Comments
Twitter’s a wonderful thing. Sometimes. Today it is. I just learned about a movement in Canada to distribute white poppies for Remembrance Day. This apparently comes from the Rideau Institute, which is a left-of-centre think tank in Ottawa.
White poppies have a long history in the United Kingdom, they date back to the immediate post-First World War era, when pacifists decided they wanted to commemorate the dead of the war and to put forward the hope that the War to End All Wars was in fact a war to end all wars (we know how that turned out). These pacifists wanted to remember all war dead, not just the British dead, which is what their problem with the red poppy was. The red poppy also took on sectarian tones in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, where it was a largely Unionist symbol.
But Canada does not have this history, it does not have the politicisation of something like the Troubles. The poppy is a pretty apolitical statement. I wore a red poppy in Canada, and now, living in the US, I feel slightly awkward in late October and November without my poppy. I have great fondness of memories of getting poppies, I liked to go to Second World War veterans, who pinned the poppy onto my lapel. There was something profound about that little ceremony, I felt like it connected me, however ephemerally, to my grandparents’ generation (both my grandmother and grandfather served in the Second World War). And it tied me to our history as a nation.
I generally oppose war, though I do believe there is such a thing as a just war. And the two world wars of the last century are, to my mind, just wars. But I don’t think my preference for peace is compromised by wearing a poppy.
The Rideau Institute says that its white poppies are for those who don’t want to celebrate war. That is not what the red poppy symbolises. The red poppy commemorates the dead of the wars, those who served. The white poppy confuses the means with the end. It politicises Remembrance Day in Canada, the very thing that should not happen. That the Rideau Institute thinks this is a good idea saddens me somewhat.