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Five times the Remembrance Day poppy got (far too) political

By Pieta Woolley


Since 1921, Canadian veterans have adopted the red poppy as a symbol of sacrifice and memorial, referencing the famous Canadian WWI poem, In Flanders Fields. In fact, the flower has become an emblem throughout the commonwealth.

In Canada, about 18 million red poppies were distributed in 2014, raising $14 million for projects administered by the Royal Canadian Legion. But the symbol is far from neutral. The following represent five times that the poppy has appeared at the centre of controversy about how and why we remember. 

1. The poppy hijab, U.K., 2014

The event: With the support of the Islamic Society of Britain, a 24-year-old design student created a poppy hijab last year to raise money for the national Poppy Appeal.

The reaction: Writing in The Independent, poppy-refuser Sophia Ahmed slammed the idea as “apologist,” saying: “I take issue with the fact that a symbol of my religion is being appropriated as a marketing tool for empire. My hijab is a visual sign of my religiosity and devotion to Allah and not a walking, talking billboard on which to showcase my patriotism and undying loyalty to Britain. No other religious group is pressured to prove their allegiance in the same way. Somehow I don’t think we’ll be seeing a budding Jewish designer marketing a poppy kippa anytime soon.”

2. White poppy campaign, Canada, 2013

The event: About 11,000 white poppies were distributed in Canada last year. Their message is anti-war, but white poppies have their own history — worn by relatives of soldiers killed in WWI and by thousands in England just before WWII. The Canadian Voice of Women for Peace Web site explains: “For some people, Remembrance Day evokes quite conflicted feelings. On the one hand, we think it is important to remember the fact of war and how horrible it is. On the other, we want to do our utmost to prevent and end war and militarism, so we are uncomfortable with some of the assumptions often promoted in mainstream discourse. For instance, to what degree is it really true that we owe our freedoms to people dying and killing for us? To what degree is fighting in war “heroic”? Are there alternative, nonviolent ways to uphold the values we hold dear?”

The reaction: In 2013, Conservative Veterans Affairs minister told media that wearing the white poppy is “an offensive attempt to politicize Remembrance Day.”

3. Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red art installation, London, 2014

The event: Artists Tom Cummins and Tom Piper created this memorial: 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI. The number represents each fallen soldier from the U.K. and the then-colonies.

The reaction: Writing in The Guardian, art critic Jonathan Jones took umbrage with the superficiality of the piece: “A meaningful mass memorial to this horror would not be dignified or pretty. It would be gory, vile and terrible to see. The moat of the Tower should be filled with barbed wire and bones. That would mean something.”

4. Poppies in shopping flyers, Canada, 2010 and beyond

The event: Eddie Bauer’s flyer promoted a “Remembrance Day Sale” — with up to 75 percent off — in 2010. The retailer later apologized. Since then, others (mostly American retailers that also sell in Canada) have done the same, including The Gap.

The reaction: Several media took a swipe at Eddie Bauer in 2010. But a lovely Torontoist essay about Canadians and the poppy, by American writer Steve Kupferman, took it deeper: “In the U.S., this type of thing wouldn’t even be worth mentioning. Veterans Day and Memorial Day sales are completely normal, even in the parts of the country where one would expect martial pride to be at its strongest — places where gun racks come standard on every pickup truck. But Canada’s reaction to Eddie Bauer’s sale was swift and violent.”

5. Poppies on empty shelves, St. Pierre Jolys, Man., 2015


The event: While many stores switch out their plastic skeletons for plastic Santas on Nov. 1, one Manitoba store made national news for refusing to do so, in honour of Remembrance Day. The Big Way has kept its holiday shelf empty, with a simple sign, “Lest We Forget,” and two poppies pinned to it.

The reaction: In a Facebook feed on the store’s page, as reported by Global TV, reaction was mixed. Linda Gingras, however, wrote: “The reason you can all celebrate Christmas and have your freedom is because of veterans and our current service members. Think of families whose loved ones gave the ultimate sacrifice and are not sitting with them at the Christmas dinner table so that you could enjoy yours.”


Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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