James Cohen is an 83-year-old veteran selling red poppies in the Scotia Plaza. He’s hunched over, missing a few teeth and his eyes are glazed over — that is until someone approaches his table.
With a quick jerk, as if he was a kid again, he quickly stands up tall to adjust a stranger’s poppy. He thanks them for their donation.
“I’ve been giving out poppies for 20 years,” says Cohen, who served in the Korean War. “The money we take in really helps the veterans, so being up every morning at six to do this is well worth it.”
Last year, 18 million red poppies were distributed and $14.5 million in funding was given to veterans through the Royal Canadian Legion.
According to the legion’s website, the proceeds collected from lapel poppy sales are “placed in trust to be used for the benevolent support of veterans and their dependants.”
And by poppy, I mean the red poppy. The red poppy that veterans hand out. The red poppy that commemorates those who gave their lives so we could have the freedoms we take for granted today. The red poppy of In Flanders Fields. Not the white poppy. The red.
“You can forget history because people paid a price to build a society that allows you to forget.” – Arne Kislenko, history professor
You may have never heard of the white poppy. The white poppy, also known as the peace poppy is distributed around Remembrance Day. Its objective is to commemorate civilian victims of war and to “reject war as a tool of social change,” according to Vancouver Peace Poppies (VPP). The proceeds collected are given to Britain’s Peace Pledge Union (PPU), which states, “the white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War, but a challenge to the continuing drive to war.” The white poppy also stands for peaceful resolution of conflicts.
Some of its supporters believe that the red poppy is used to promote sympathy for the military and is a propaganda tool to recruit soldiers. What these advocates fail to realize, however, is that the red poppy encompasses all of the white poppy’s ideals and much more. It’s a symbol of remembrance rather than cheap marketing. So why bother with the white poppy?
I didn’t see a reason and asked white-poppy advocate Teresa Gagne from VPP for some insight. “[Britons] came up with the white poppy, or peace poppy, as a symbol to show resistance to war,” says Gagne. Although the idea has been around since the 1930s, she says the white poppy is experiencing “a resurgence” in some parts of Canada.
Gagne is pro-white poppy, but she insists on wearing both.
“I’m just not comfortable wearing the red poppy by itself because I feel it has been used in a contemporary way by governments to justify and validate contemporary wars,” she says. “If I just wear the red poppy, many may see that as an acceptance of a whole value system that I actually don’t accept.”
If that’s what she believes, then why wear the red poppy at all? Oh right. That’s because in reality, the red poppy is for remembering the fallen.
“They shouldn’t forget the fact that many Canadians and people globally are engaging in an act of remembrance and not in an act of political agreement with a particular government or with military in general, or even the ideas of war,” says Arne Kislenko, undergraduate director for the department of history at Ryerson. “I think most people who commemorate Remembrance Day are profoundly disagreeable with the notion of war, and that’s why we do it.”
The world wars saw a combined death of approximately 94 million military personnel and civilians. The amount of suffering caused in the last century has left a permanent mark on everything that has followed. In his history of espionage class at Ryerson, Kislenko challenges his students to prove him wrong.
“I always explain to my students that people can be stupid because other people died for them,” says Kislenko. “You can forget history because people paid a price to build a society that allows you to forget.”
At best, the concept of a peace poppy is an idealistic one. It’s not a bad thing to promote peace, but not in the form of a poppy. Not at a time when the world is honouring the dead. Not when the fundraising proceeds from the pockets of Canadians ignore our veterans and go to a Peace Pledge Union in England.
“They strike me as being terribly unimaginative,” says Kislenko.
Organizations like Vancouver Peace Poppy have a right to exist, but that doesn’t mean that you can suspend all elements of courtesy and respect. I’m pleased that most Canadians, especially Torontonians, haven’t heard of them. A lot of those who have find them disagreeable. In a huge spectrum of diversities, my peers and my neighbours can band together and agree that it’s downright disrespectful.
And in the words of James Cohen: “The white poppy? Forget that!”
I couldn’t agree more.