Taking back the red poppy

red poppy

On November 11th, after more research and more reflection, I stood watching the Remembrance day celebrations in Montreal. I was wearing a White Poppy, after the first blast of the cannon; I threw it in the garbage.

The Red Poppy is not about war mongering. The Red Poppy is not about militarism. The Red Poppy is about remembering the Sacred Dead, those who heard the call, felt the fight was just and put their lives on the line for a greater good.

But, originally, when the Red Poppy was given out in 1921, it was about more than that. It was about camaraderie, it was about caring for the less fortunate domestically and it was about trying to help the most affected by the pillages and destruction of war around the world.

Somehow, over almost a century these core messages were perverted. It is time we take them back.

GWVA constitution 1917 1In the early of fall of 1921, The Great War Veteran’s Association wanted to run a cross country campaign. Returned soldiers were worried, the government was apathetic and stingy, returned soldiers were starving. And so the Poppy Day campaign was started.

It was based on and in collaboration with efforts in France. Orphans and widows in the most ravaged parts of France had begun producing beautiful silk poppies in 1920 to cover their most basic needs, many were sold in the United States and around the world. Times were desperate.

The G.W.V.A was in touch with the needs of the poor and helpless. It wasn’t an organization of fancy officers and big shot generals.

It was started by non-commissioned members, mostly privates and corporals. Members addressed each other as comrade, and used their organizational strength to fight for Canadians.

Unlike the apathetic Officer’s Legion of today they were very political, although unfortunately sometimes reflecting the racial biases of the day. They had grand conventions and called for national unemployment insurance, jobs for the jobless and more help for the poor.

A lot of big shots didn’t like that. They were called Bolsheviks, fanatics and were suppressed mercilessly. But they kept on. Winter was coming and many knew their comrades wouldn’t make to the Spring. The Red Poppy, a desperate Hail Mary, just had to work.

The G.W.V.A Poppy Day campaign had three official objectives repeated across the country. The first was to inaugurate the wearing of the Red Poppy as a sign to cherish the memory of the Sacred Dead. The big shots who ended up taking over the campaign kept this one alive.

The second, explicitly, was to provide funds to relieve the very real distresses of returned soldiers, who very well couldn’t survive the winter. If you suggested the third today you’d be called a heretic. The G.W.V.A wanted to raise money for the orphans of Europe, the victims of the war. It is a national shame the second and third have been forgotten. We need to take back our traditions.

And people responded. That year, over 1 million poppies were sold. Tens of thousands of dollars were raised. Jewish, Orange Protestant and Catholic organizations set aside their differences and worked together.

In Ottawa, the tradition of laying poppy covered wreaths began on Parliament Hill. In Calgary, returned soldiers of all ranks had a ball at the beautiful Palliser Hotel, now reserved exclusively for the rich.

The following Sunday, the 10th Battalion showed off their brand new Highlander Kilts. In Toronto, thousands crowded the war monument, despite the slush and terrible weather, to show their respect.

Our great Canadian traditions have been stolen from us. It is high time we took them back.

The Red Poppy is about Remembrance, but it was about more than Remembrance. The G.W.V.A was created, in their own words, by bands of “weary-eyed, hopeless men who struggled to regain a niche in the country which apparently had no further use for them because their value as fighting units belonged to the past.”

Veterans today are facing austerity. Front line services are being cut. The government is getting stingy. Not much has changed.

This isn’t just about veterans, it is about all Canadians and it is about the world. We need to take back our traditions from those who use them against us. Like the Great War Veterans’ Association, together as comrades, we can make that happen.

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