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Royal Canadian Legion Has A Dark History We Must Also Remember

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(Photo: The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes)

Remember.

Remember that today marks the culmination of a militarist, nationalist ritual organized by a reactionary state-backed group.

Every year the Royal Canadian Legion sells about 20 million red poppies in the lead-up to Remembrance Day. Remember that red poppies were inspired by the 1915 poem "In Flanders Fields" by Canadian army officer John McCrae. The pro-war poem calls on Canadians to "take up our quarrel with the foe" and was used to promote war bonds and recruit soldiers during the First World War.

Remember that today, red poppies commemorate Canadians who have died at war. Not being commemorated are the Afghans or Libyans killed by Canadians in the 2000s, nor the Iraqis and Serbians killed in the 1990s, nor the Koreans killed in the 1950s or the Russians, South Africans, Sudanese and others killed before that. By focusing exclusively on "our" side, Remembrance Day poppies reinforce a sense that Canada's cause is righteous. But Canadian soldiers have only fought in one morally justifiable war: the Second World War.

The organization sponsoring the red poppy campaign receives little critical attention.

While there's some criticism of the nationalism and militarism driving Remembrance Day, the organization sponsoring the red poppy campaign receives little critical attention. Incorporated by an act of Parliament, the Canadian Legion of the British Empire Services League was formed in 1926.

Renamed the Royal Canadian Legion in 1960, from the get-go it was designed to counter more critical veteran organizations. In The Vimy Trap: or, How We Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Great War, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift write, "benefiting from government recognition, the Legion slowly supplanted its rivals. It was consciously designed as [a] body that would soothe the veterans temper and moderate their demands."

In 1927 the federal government granted the Legion a monopoly over poppy distribution and the Veterans Affairs-run Vetcraft made the Legion's poppies for 75 years. The Legion has benefited from various other forms of government support. Its branches have received public funds and the Governor General, head of the Canadian Forces, is the Legion's Grand Patron, and numerous prime ministers and defence ministers have addressed its conventions.

canadian poppies
Poppies are placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier following a Remembrance Day ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa Nov. 11, 2010. (Photo: REUTERS/Blair Gable)

While its core political mandate is improving veterans' services, the Legion has long advocated militarism and a reactionary worldview. In the early 1930s it pushed for military build-up and its 1950 convention called for "total preparedness." In 1983 its president, Dave Capperauld, supported U.S. cruise missiles tests in Alberta, and into the early 1990s the Legion, reports Branching Out: the story of the Royal Canadian Legion, took "an uncompromising stand on the importance of maintaining a strong Canadian military presence in Europe through NATO, and by supporting the United States build-up of advanced nuclear weapons."

The Legion has also espoused a racist, paranoid and pro-Empire worldview. In the years after the Second World War, it called for the expulsion of Canadians of Japanese origin and ideological screening for German immigrants. A decade before then, notes Branching Out, "Manitoba Command unanimously endorsed a resolution to ban communist activities, and provincial president Ralph Webb ... warned that children were being taught to spit on the Union Jack in Manitoba schools."

The veterans group has sought to suppress critical understanding of military history.

Long after the end of the Cold War the organization remains concerned about "subversives." Today, Legion members have to sign a statement that begins: "I hereby solemnly declare that I am not a member of, nor affiliated with, any group, party or sect whose interests conflict with the avowed purposes of the Legion, and I do not, and will not, support any organization advocating the overthrow of our government by force or which advocates, encourages or participates in subversive action or propaganda."

The veterans group has sought to suppress critical understanding of military history. In the mid-2000s the Legion battled Canadian War Museum historians over an exhibition about the Second World War Allied bomber offensive. After shaping its development, the Legion objected to a small part of a multifaceted exhibit, which questioned "the efficacy and the morality of the ... massive bombing of Germany's industrial and civilian targets."

white poppy
White poppies representing peace in a bouquet of red poppies. (Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville)

With the museum refusing to give the veterans an effective veto over its exhibit, Legion Magazine called for a boycott. The Legion's campaign led to hearings by the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs and a new display that glossed over a bombing campaign explicitly designed to destroy German cities. It also led to the director of the museum, Joe Guerts, resigning.

A decade earlier the Legion participated in a campaign to block the three-part series The Valour and the Horror from being rebroadcast or distributed to schools. The 1992 CBC series claimed Canadian soldiers committed unprosecuted war crimes during the Second World War and that the British-led bomber command killed 600,000 German civilians. The veterans groups' campaign led to a Senate inquiry, CRTC hearing and lawsuit, as well as a commitment from CBC to not rebroadcast The Valour and the Horror without amendments.

Rather than supporting the militaristic, jingoistic, nationalism of the Legion, Canadians of good conscience should support peace organizations' white poppy campaign to remember all victims of war.

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