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Canadian Tradition – The Remembrance Poppy

The Peacekeeping Monument, Ottawa
The Peacekeeping Monument, Ottawa

In the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day, don’t be surprised to see red poppies brightening up dark and bulky winter clothing. The “remembrance poppy” is a Canadian (and British) tradition, inspired by the World War I poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian poet John McCrae, which describes poppies growing amid soldiers’ graves. Since 1921, the red flower has been used to commemorate soldiers who have died in war or any conflict since 1914.

Traditionally worn from the last Friday in October to the end of the day on November 11, plastic poppies are sold for a small donation just about anywhere by Royal Canadian Legion members and veterans, dressed in their neatly-pressed uniforms. Millions of Canadians wear it proudly on the left breast, close to the heart, and the main public issue usually revolves around not losing it (and apparently, using a Canadian flag pin to secure it is frown upon by the Legion—bad poppy etiquette!).

Wearing the remembrance poppy is not mandatory, of course, but it has become expected. You kind of stand out if you don’t wear one, although I suppose you could have lost it. Public figures who don’t wear the poppy are often frowned upon and disparaged for not honouring their veterans—from politicians to news anchors, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone without it.

Yet, I have never bought or worn a poppy.

When I first came to Canada, I felt like an outsider. Taking part in a Canadian custom and any patriotic act would have been weird—after all, I knew very little about the country. I could have followed the crowd but I wanted to understand first. Not wearing the poppy wasn’t a conscious decision: it was a Canadian custom and I wasn’t yet Canadian, that’s all. Time would come.

But time never came because then, I got confused. I started to wonder if wearing a poppy represented a support for all military action, not just the sacrifices made by soldiers in past wars we see as a clear fight between good and evil, like WWII. And since WWII, there were many conflicts where I’m not sure military action was justified.

It’s hard to explain that while I don’t support the military as an entity, I don’t resent its members individually. I don’t begrudge kids for joining because enlisting feels like the best career option and a good way to get an education if you come back alive and still want to attend university. I don’t think all those who serve are violent idiots who just want to fight with real weapons and get paid for it. The reality is much more nuanced and subtle. People join the army for all kinds of reasons.

“But we saved your ass in 1945!” some may say. Yes, as a European, I am indeed grateful to those who fought against Nazi Germany, the French government that collaborated and many other fascist nations and ideologies. But my feelings are ambivalent. I feel for those who died during WWII and any other war, for that matter. But I feel for them as human beings, not because they were the good guys and because they wore a uniform.

Both Americans and Canadians have a way to honour veterans and active servicemen and women that is virtually unknown in France where, if anything, you make fun or the army rather than offering military discounts, respect and prayers. So maybe I’m just being French. I’m not used to be told to “support the troops”—of course, I want everyone to come back safely, regardless of the circumstances under which they were deployed. But should I blindly support the current respective government’s foreign policy? I don’t think so.

It also bothers me that we honour vets but that we seem to forget about all the civilians who died during conflicts. Collateral damages, stuck between two sides, ideologies, threats and treaties. So we honour people who are paid to fight and signed up for the job, but we don’t mention the innocent bystanders? Yeah, I’m extrapolating and overinterpreting. Still, it doesn’t feel right.

I have the same ambiguous feelings about the War Museum in Ottawa. It is important to revisit past conflicts and atrocities to learn from our mistakes, to understand how we got there. But halfway through the exhibits, I always feel slightly bothered by the rhetoric. It seems that only one side is right and that there is only one way to solve the issue: with big motherfucking guns. It’s not that simple. A military is a tool used by governments, soldiers are geopolitical pawns and the population is brainwashed to stand by them, conveniently forgetting to focus on the bigger picture: why are we fighting, already?

Maybe we should pause for a second and stop blindly honour this, support that. Maybe governments are tricking us into accepting war.

I don’t know anymore.

Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum.

I don’t think I need a poppy to remember that any place on earth can go from civil to civil war in a matter of months. I don’t think I need a reminder that we just can’t help fighting—for greed and power, but also for freedom and noble causes.

This Remembrance Day, I will think about this.

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