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Why I Do Not Wear A Poppy

11/07/2013 12:31 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

The poppy as we know it was introduced to Canada in 1921 as a way to commemorate the soldiers who participated in World War One. Since then, The Royal Canadian Legion (RCL) has been responsible for distributing the poppy (on which they've had a trademark since 1948), as part of what they call the "Poppy Campaign."

Every year, millions of Canadians take part in this campaign by attaching the poppy to their clothes. I do not wear the poppy, or donate to the RCL, because I believe that this campaign glorifies war instead of calling for peace.

The RCL's bureaucratic "Poppy Manual" explicitly and officially classifies the poppy as a symbol of the way Canadians can unite during war. For example, the RCL claims the poppy should be used to remember events like Vimy Ridge which, according to the RCL, proved Canada's "ability as a formidable force in the theatre of war," prevented Canada from being "overshadowed by the military strength of her allies," and, saw Canadians "united to defeat adversity and a military threat to the world."

Furthermore, the RCL believes brutal wars are crucial to Canada's prosperity as they claim, "We realize that it is because of our War Veterans that we exist as a proud and free nation." The word "peace" is not mentioned throughout this document.

The message the group inscribes in its manual is then passed on to Canadians through social media and advertisements. RCL ads will tell Canadians to "respect the sacrifices veterans made for us, lest we forget." Then, on Remembrance Day itself, the RCL's ceremonies propagate a similar message through the spectacle they create. For example, the RCL brings cannons onto the McGill campus on Remembrance Day each year to fire off a 21-gun salute amidst waving Canadian flags and soldiers marching with guns.

I believe that it is of the utmost importance to remember past wars and the soldiers who took part in them, but I remember these things quite a bit differently than how the RCL would like you to remember them. I also believe that the RCL's monopoly on the discourse surrounding poppies and Remembrance Day must be challenged. As such, here are a few examples of where I take issue with the RCL's form of remembrance.

The RCL's website claims that the poppy campaign is intended for us to "show [our] recognition of the debt owed to so many Canadians who gave their lives for our freedom."

I think the more important thing to remember is that wars are generally not fought in the interest of the people's freedom, or at the demand of the people. Instead, wars are fought for the rich, by the poor. Just think about Canada's own wars. What is the last war Canada participated in that could be deemed to enhance the freedom of Canadians?

When the RCL states, "Lest we forget," they mean we should remember the courage of Canadian soldiers. Instead, I think we should spend more time remembering the Canadian government's cowardice in the past, through conscripting soldiers to fight their wars, and more recently, by coercing them through promises of education and monetary rewards. Though I can see how it is important to honour soldiers' courage in battle, surely the more important initiative should be to prevent the lethal battles where these soldiers show off this courage.

When the RCL calls for us to remember a Canada united during war, I call for us to remember the nasty effects of nationalism during war which divided Canada. For example, the brutal internment of Japanese, German, and Italian-Canadian citizens during World War Two is worth remembering, but these atrocities are routinely glossed over since they do not fit into the glorious narrative of war as freedom. Instead of fitting into the narrative, these crimes against humanity, which the government only began to apologize for in 1988, are examples of where society can go when we allow the glorification of war, and the nationalism which accompanies it, to take over.

I do not think I am the only one who remembers things a little differently than the RCL. I think that many Canadians have more commendable intentions when wearing the poppy, and that they have the right to wear the poppy for their own reasons. Regardless of this, they are still participating in the RCL's campaign by wearing the poppy.

As such, I think that initiatives like the "Peace Poppy" (though I also don't wear it) are the right sort of step. This initiative, started by the Rideau Institute, allows one to respect people whose relatives have died in wars, while remembering the sort of things I have outlined.

Yet as one would expect, figures like Veteran Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, as well as right-wing nationalistic publications like the Toronto Sun, are demonizing this effort, labeling it as "disrespectful," and calling for it to end.

This illustrates the fact that the militant nationalist tale the RCL promotes is still a threat which some in Canada endorse, and insist upon. Until the RCL takes a different approach to the poppy and Remembrance Day than the dangerous tale they currently promote, I cannot consciously support the campaign. This is not out of disrespect for veterans, but rather out of respect for the many sorts of victims of war throughout the world.