White poppies: Why a symbol of peace has never really caught on in Canada

Canadian Voice of Women for Peace has quietly soldiered on with its campaign

More than five years after the white poppy campaign sparked a rancorous debate about how Canadians should reflect on Remembrance Day, the anti-war movement is still stinging from its ugly standoff with the Royal Canadian Legion.

Organizers behind the low-key campaign, which promotes peace and remembers civilian casualties of war, admit the legion’s opposition has undermined the popularity of the white poppy, with only 1,200 of the pale, homemade flowers distributed last year in advance of Remembrance Day.

“Unfortunately, the legion’s negativity — turning it into an either/or — has done a lot of damage in terms of discouraging people,” says author and peace activist Heather Menzies.

“In terms of message control, they have succeeded in communicating: ‘If you wear the white poppy, it means that you are not honouring the war dead.’”

A spokeswoman for the legion’s Dominion Command in Ottawa said the organization, which represents 275,000 veterans and distributes millions of red poppies every November, would not comment on the white poppy movement.

In the past, the legion has called the white flowers — some with the word “peace” appearing in the centre — an insult to veterans and a possible copyright violation because the legion owns the trademark on the poppy.

In 2010, the legion threatened to launch a lawsuit to stop the alternative poppy drive.

In February 2011, the advocacy group Canadian Voice of Women for Peace met with the legion’s leadership to seek a compromise, but the veterans weren’t interested, Menzies says.

“I thought we had made some progress in shifting the paradigm on what would be the focus of Remembrance Day,” says Menzies, whose great uncle was the victim of a gas attack during the First World War, and whose father was wounded by shrapnel while fighting in France and Holland during the Second World War.

“That would mean honouring the dead but also lamenting war because it is so destructive … I thought they heard us that day … (But) they just kept reiterating, ‘We want to defend our brand,’ which is the red poppy.”

Since then, Canadian Voice of Women for Peace has quietly soldiered on with its campaign, even though it hasn’t gained much momentum.

Lyn Adamson, the group’s co-chairwoman, says wearing a white poppy is not meant to show disrespect toward veterans and, more importantly, it can help open a broader discussion about the true cost of war. That’s why she wears both types of poppies at this time of year.

“We do want to remember those who have given their lives by following the instructions of their country in sending them to war, but we also want to remember the civilian deaths,” she says, adding that building a culture of peace involves talking about Canada’s multibillion-dollar arms industry and the federal government’s decision in June to boost defence spending by 70 per cent over the next 10 years.

“Let’s think critically about war, while respecting the veterans who lost their lives, and let’s use this opportunity of remembering to figure out how we can end war.”

While the history of the red poppy can be traced back to the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century, it was first adopted as a symbol of remembrance in Canada in 1921, six years after Lt.-Col. John McCrae of Guelph, Ont., wrote about the blood-red flowers that grew over battlefields in his poem, “In Flanders Fields.”

The white poppy emerged as a symbol of peace in 1933, when the Women’s Co-operative Guild in Britain was searching for a way to show their members were against war and for non-violence.

In Canada, the legion’s enmity for the white poppy has been partially fuelled by the misconception that peace activists believe the red poppy represents a glorification of war, Menzies says.

“All of the people I know who wear the white poppy are extremely respectful of the message of the red poppy, which is an honouring of the people who sacrificed their lives in war so that there could be peace and freedom for other people,” she says.

However, the London-based pacifist group that leads the white poppy campaign in Britain, the Peace Pledge Union, takes a more confrontational approach. The group’s website says the white poppy is a symbol of peace and remembrance for all victims of war, but it also says it is aimed at challenging “attempts to glamorize or celebrate war.”

Marian White, a volunteer with the Island Peace Committee in Charlottetown, says the red poppy is too closely associated with extolling the heroic virtues of the military — a position the legion has strenuously rejected.

“What we’ve been doing is quietly, each fall, reminding people that civilians are the majority of the victims of war these days, and that the red poppy campaign is something that we see as glamorizing or celebrating war,” White says. “It looks at the victims solely in the military … It’s heavily militaristic.”

The P.E.I. group handed out fewer than 100 white poppies last year.

Asked if the ongoing clash with the legion has hurt their campaign, White said: “I don’t think you can go wrong with promoting peace … It’s not meant to antagonize the vets.”

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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