MONTREAL - The premier of Quebec wasted no time removing a Fleur-de-lis pin from her lapel Friday after some veterans complained about her wearing it inside a Remembrance Day poppy.
Premier Pauline Marois had been wearing the poppy with the small Quebec emblem in it since she gave her inaugural speech in the national assembly on Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for Marois said she wasn't trying to offend anyone by combining the Quebec symbol with the veterans' one.
"Her objective was not to create a controversy," said her director of communications, Shirley Bishop.
"Madame Marois has a lot of respect for veterans and a lot of respect for all the people who've lost their lives for their homeland. The fact of putting a Fleur-de-lis was not at all, not at all, a political act...
"She'll continue to wear the poppy but, given the controversy, she will not put the Fleur-de-lis."
The sudden sartorial reversal came after complaints from a veterans' group in Quebec on Friday.
The Quebec Command of the Royal Canadian Legion said some of its members were insulted that Marois had modified the poppy. Margot Arsenault, the Legion's provincial president, accused the Parti Quebecois premier of playing politics.
"I find it's very political and right now the veterans are very, very, very upset because they fought for Canada not just for Quebec," she said Friday. "We are in Canada. If she wants to wear the poppy she should just wear it like it is."
Arsenault said she had received about 15 phone calls and about a dozen emails from veterans who complained the premier's gesture was not acceptable. Several complaints were from francophone veterans who live in Rimouski and Quebec City.
Arsenault, whose father was a veteran, said the poppy is a Royal Canadian Legion symbol and nothing should be attached inside — even the Canadian flag.
"Nothing is to be worn inside like a pin — whether it's the Canadian flag or anything. We're not supposed to," she said.
It's the second time Marois has taken criticism this year over a red lapel ornament. Last spring, she stopped wearing the red square in support of the student protest movement.
Norman Shelton, a Legion vice-president, pointed out that in the past he's seen Marois wearing just the poppy: "She's never put anything in it before," he said. "Maybe because she is the premier now, she thought she could put the Quebec flag in."
On its website, the Royal Canadian Legion says the poppy is "the sacred symbol of Remembrance and should not be defaced in any way."
The Legion says the association of the poppy to those killed in battle has existed since the Napoleonic wars in the 19th century.
It was adopted as an official Canadian symbol a century later, in 1921, after the First World War. The Legion cites the famous poem by Lt.-Col. John McCrae, "In Flanders Fields," as a prime reason that the symbol became synonymous with remembrance in Canada and other countries.
The Legion says the poppy is always worn on the left breast, close to the heart.
The centre of the emblem was originally black, but was changed to green more than 20 years ago to represent the green fields of France. But, in 2002, the centre was changed back to black to reflect the actual colours of the poppies in Flanders, France.
"We've got to make sure it looks like the way it was when it was made way back for our veterans — right down to the pin," Shelton said.
"You'll never see a veteran with something in the middle of their poppy."
Some people stick pins — like the Fleur-de-lis, or the Maple Leaf — in the middle of the poppy in order to keep it from falling off. But Shelton said there's a simple solution: just bend the original pin on the back.
Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney also weighed in on the controversy. He urged Canadians to respect the guidelines set out by the Legion.
"Wearing the poppy is a show of recognition for those who gave their lives for their country and this goes well beyond politics and partisanship," he said in an interview Friday.
The Legion's Montreal office was flooded with interview requests when the story first appeared in local media.
In the past, there has also been extensive news coverage when veterans were refused access to grocery stores during the Legion's poppy campaigns.
Shelton admitted the Legion was getting tired of all the controversies that pop up every year during the Remembrance period.
"Look at us, we're doing interviews all day when we really have to be working on the campaign for our veterans," he said.