Why I refuse to wear a poppy
From the time I was five years old until I was seventeen, it was the same. Once everyone put their Halloween costumes away, I would put my loonie in the little plastic box and pin a poppy to my jacket. Then, just like my classmates and teachers, I would wear the little red flower over my heart until the twelfth of November, when I would take it off and wait for the next year. But for the last four years, I have made the choice to not wear a poppy.
The social pressure to wear a poppy is rarely visible in public, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. There is a certain expectation in our culture that it’s just what you do, and few question why. In 2006, high-profile British news reporter Jon Snow was harshly criticized for his refusal to wear a poppy on air. Many claimed that by not wearing one, he was disrespecting the war dead and publicly lambasted him, demanding that he don a poppy on television. One can only imagine what the reaction would be if a prominent Canadian figure were spotted on an early November afternoon without the symbolic red flower pinned to their lapel.
When retailers and interest groups in Edmonton began selling white poppies in 2006, the Royal Canadian Legion threatened to take legal action. The Legion claimed that the “white poppies for peace” infringed on the Legion’s trademark crimson poppy and that they attached an inappropriate political statement to the flower. Rod Stewart (yes, that’s his real name), the vice-president of the Alberta-Northwest Territories command, told the Edmonton Journal that the Legion did not want the message of the white poppies interfering with what he believes is the true purpose of Remembrance Day. As he put it, “It is the one day set aside where we show our respect to the war dead. We don’t get judgmental about why they died or where they died or for whom they died.”
But I have to ask, why shouldn’t we get judgmental about why they died or where they died or for whom they died? I believe that we owe it to the victims of war and those who have been forced to fight to ask these questions. War is inherently political. It is our government’s decision whether or not our country chooses to engage in war and it is up to us, as citizens, to evaluate these decisions. In the First World War, many Canadians were forced to fight simply because they were the citizens of a British Colony. Britain declared war, Prime Minister Borden passed the Military Service Act, and soon thousands of Canadians were shipped overseas to fight a war for a country many of them had never seen. Considering all of this, is it really inappropriate to question the deaths of over sixty-six thousand Canadians?
The problem I have with the poppy is that in wearing one, we are asked to remember the veterans who died in the wars, but never to demand demilitarization or pacifism. It seems ridiculous to disassociate such a powerful symbol from the politics of war. The poppy has become a symbol of the militaristic rhetoric and pageantry that is celebrated every Remembrance Day. By wearing the poppy, the soldiers become martyrs and heroes. Granted, the veterans who fought in the World Wars endured extreme hardship and inhumane punishments, and we should recognize them for the trials they faced and the circumstances they were subjected to. But why shouldn’t we remember all victims of violence and hate? We are asked to remember the Canadians who died overseas, but we are never asked to remember those who died at the hands of military dictatorships or those who were killed by Canadian soldiers.
The symbolism of the poppy presents a false image of our military. The military has become a last resort for too many impoverished Canadians who have no other way to earn an education and make decent wages. Others are lured in by the illusion that the military presents an opportunity for them to be a hero or a freedom fighter. I am deeply saddened when I see footage of caskets being unloaded from a plane draped in a Canadian flag. We tell ourselves that they died honourably to cope with the pain of losing a beloved member or our community. We stick yellow ribbon decals on the backs of our mini-vans and pick-up trucks to convince ourselves that they made the right choice. As the war in Afghanistan has shown, our military men and women are not dying for freedom and honour. They are dying in vain to destroy a non-existent nation — a network of underground guerrilla criminals populated with young men who had nowhere to turn but towards the impassioned rhetoric of the local terrorist group.
I do not wear a poppy because I refuse to perpetuate the myth of the Canadian military that is promoted in the symbols of Remembrance Day. I cannot wear a poppy and feel a sense of pride for what it represents. Simply put, I cannot separate the poppy from the politics.