It’s hard to avoid red poppies around Remembrance Day. Veterans are stationed in grocery stores across the country, selling the familiar felt and plastic flower. The bright piece of lapel flair is a must-have for politicians, making Canada’s parliament look like a convention of opium producers this time of year. The Chronicle-Herald even printed a large picture of a poppy for people to wave at VIA Rail’s “Remembrance Day Train” as it travels from Halifax to Ottawa for November 11 ceremonies. Displayed out of respect to fallen soldiers, the poppy is seen as a wholesome symbol. Too bad it has a deeper meaning—to glorify war—which takes away from the honourable intent.
Moina Michael, an American woman on staff with the YMCA’s Overseas War Workers, is credited with popularizing the red poppy. She donned the first poppy in 1918, as World War One was ending. Soon factories were churning them out for mass sale, with proceeds going to war survivors. Originally that meant WWI veterans, although the “War to End All Wars” led in time to lots more fighting and lots more vets needing help. Not to mention lots more casualties.
Poppies have been sold in Canada since 1921, and the Royal Canadian Legion articulates the flower’s message well on its website: Soldiers worry “they will be forgotten, that their death will have been in vain. Remembrance, as symbolized by the poppy, is our eternal answer which belies that fear.” But Jan Melichar writes in the Peace Matters newsletter about the troubling other side of that coin: “‘They did not die in vain’ implies ‘the war had a valuable purpose.’” If we buy that any war can be valuable and necessary, it gets easier for a government to sell the next one. Enter the white poppy.
Looking to honour the dead without celebrating deadly conflicts, England’s Co-operative Women’s Guild started making white poppies in 1933. Firmly rooted in respect for slain soldiers—women of the Guild had lost brothers, sons and husbands—the white poppy is a peace symbol, a way to say there must be better ways to solve problems than war. Less widely known then the red version, which it is often worn with, the gentle white flower is nonetheless a long-standing sign of remembrance.
Susanna Eve is the main force behind the local white poppy movement. “After 9/11 and with the invasion of Afghanistan, there was such a feeling of horror within the peace community that we wanted to do something positive and ongoing,” she says of the current campaign. When poppies are needed, Eve or her friend buys the felt and gets to work. The friend is particularly adept at cutting the poppy shape and adding the green centre. Eve says “most of the ones you’ve seen are made by one woman in Dartmouth in her spare time.”
Eve produces the leaflet about the symbol’s history that is handed out with every poppy. Information is critical, because the white peace sign has caused anger. “I was absolutely ripped apart by veterans out west,” says Eve about being a guest on a talk-radio program a few years ago. The experience made her wary of speaking publicly on behalf of the poppy, and she is careful to make its intentions clear. “The white poppy is not meant to be disrespectful of people who served and died,” she says. “It’s about a focus on finding nonviolent means to resolve conflict.”
She will have white poppies—and a donation jar—at a peace vigil being held outside the Spring Garden Road library November 10. “So it won’t be in direct conflict with November 11.” Eve encourages the wearing of white poppies year-round, not just while the red poppy blooms. “Wars and conflict and looking at peaceful resolutions doesn’t start in October and end in December. It would be nice if there was a war season and then it was over, but that’s not how it works.”
Remember to email me at: email@example.com. To find out where to get a white poppy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.