Poppy Wars

This op-ed appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on November 11, 2013

“Ottawa Students Don’t Care If ‘White Poppy’ Offends Veterans!” screamed the Sun News headline.

In what has become the annual stopgap war between the War On Halloween and War On Christmas, the Poppy War was again trotted out as a means of politicizing a day of Remembrance, of asserting some sort of self-ascribed conservative monopoly on supporting the military over the stereotypical “hippie, anti-war pacifists” on the left.

A quick scan through the comments on any of the multiple stories urging readers to get angry over the Rideau Institute’s White Poppy campaign demonstrates just how successful that call to arms was.

“I guess these pacifists would have preferred the world to stand peacefully by while Hitler gassed millions of Jewish people,” reads one comment. “I will personally call out, injure and defame ANYONE I see in public wearing a white one!” states another. And perhaps the least enlightening, but most telling comment (written, of course, in ALL CAPS): “NEVER WTF WHITE POPPIES CANT SAY MERRY CHRISTMAS WERE BECOME SOME COUNTRY THAT NEVER STANDS UP FOR WHAT OUR FOR FATHERS CREATED. COPS WEARING TURBINES IN ARE LEGIONS AND POLICE FORCE. STOP TRYING TO CHANGE ARE TRADITIONS YOU SHOULD BE DEPORTED.”

Sigh. So many errors, so little space.

The white poppy movement is nothing new; it was an idea born out of the U.K. in the 1930s as a way of remembering those killed in the line of duty, but with an added emphasis, in the view of the wearers, on a push for peace. What this idea has become, however, is a well-intentioned, though ultimately misguided, push to “refocus” our attention on Remembrance Day, to stop “celebrating and glorifying war” and instead to “remember for peace.”

The thing is, that’s precisely what Remembrance Day is for. When we don the Red Poppy, that enduring symbol of sacrifice captured so beautifully in John McRae’s poem In Flanders Fields, we don’t do so with the intention of marking the next year’s ceremony with an expanded list of soldiers to commemorate. We stand in solidarity with those who fought, or are still fighting, on our behalf. We mourn those who died in battle, acknowledge the survivors and express gratitude for every soldier’s service to our country. And we do so while reflecting on the brutality of war, pushing for a future free of conflict, where diplomacy is chosen over deployment.

Both poppy camps are essentially working toward a common cause: reflecting on past atrocities in the hopes of avoiding future conflict. However, as the two sides fight over whose approach is nobler, the very people whom they claim to support are squeezed out of the conversation.

Completely lost in this red versus white battle of egos is the plight our soldiers currently face right here at home.

Our soldiers, veterans, aren’t exactly concerned with the colour of poppy on your lapel; they’re too busy fighting the government — the very Conservatives who never pass up a photo op with those in uniform, who use their proclaimed support for the troops as an attack on the opposition — for the basic benefits and support to which they’re entitled.

Right now, soldiers wounded in Afghanistan are being delayed compensation as the federal Conservatives seek to overturn a B.C. Supreme Court decision permitting veterans to sue for their benefits.

Elsewhere, wounded soldiers are being discharged ahead of their time, disqualifying them from a military pension.Hundreds of jobs have been slashed at Veterans Affairs, leaving the most vulnerable of the veteran population without access to critical, front-line workers, destroying lives in the process.

The Last Post Fund, intended to provide impoverished veterans with a dignified burial, has rejected over two-thirds of applications received since 2006 — 67 per cent of veterans’ families have been turned down. When a non-partisan motion was presented in Parliament to improve the fund’s eligibility requirements, it was voted down by the Conservatives.

As Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino takes to the radio to compare himself, an ex-police officer, to soldiers who’ve served “in the trenches,” veterans who actually served on the front lines are gagged.

Wounded soldiers are being made to sign agreements stating they will not criticize their senior officers or air their grievances on social media. That’s right: those who fought for our freedoms are having their own curtailed, lest what they have to say reflect poorly on the military or the government.

And heaven forbid the public find out they’ve been calling for Fantino to be removed from his position.

Rather than fighting each other over the colour of a symbol of remembrance, those in the trenches of the Poppy Wars would do well to direct their energy toward fighting for a better future for our veterans.

Our soldiers need more than a single day of remembrance; more than a “moment of silence” for their service. They need a government that pays them more than lip service and a public whose support goes beyond chest-thumping patriotism.

Lord knows they’ve earned it.

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