Mahdis Habibinia | Executive Editor, Online
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This past Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I in 1918. As tradition dictates, people donned red poppies on their fall jackets to show their support for Remembrance Day.
Although the red poppy’s history can be traced back to the Napoleonic Wars in the 1800s, by 1921, it was adopted as a symbol of remembrance in Canada. This was mainly due to Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s notorious poem we were all expected to learn in grade school—In Flanders Fields. Its significance lies in the fact that the red flowers inhabited the now-former-battlefield of Flanders after the end of WWI, surrounding the graves of soldiers.
The Royal British Legion states on their website that McCrae’s poem inspired Moina Michael to make and sell red poppies, “which were brought to England by a French woman, Anna Guérin. The (Royal) British Legion, formed in 1921, ordered 9 million of these poppies and sold them on November 11, that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately, and with the first ever ‘Poppy Appeal’ raised over £106,000; a considerable amount of money at the time. This was used to help WW1 veterans with employment and housing.”
In fact, the original, intended message of the red poppy was to emphasize ‘never again’ to war. But, for almost a century now, the blood-red blossom has been the primary symbol for honouring war veterans on Remembrance Day, and beyond.
More specifically, it’s meant to honour and commemorate the fallen British armed forces of WWI, and is distributed by the Royal British Legion.
However, last year, a growing support, followed by a growing controversy, ensued when a different type of remembrance symbol found its way onto people’s fall jackets: the white poppy.
The white poppy is distributed by the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), a pacifist organization, to advocate broadening the conversations around war. Where the red poppy initially commemorates British armed forces and services from WWI, the white poppy is intended to remember all victims of all wars.
Tristan Collins, first-year computer science student, believes the white poppy is interesting because it’s inclusive. “It allows for more people who suffered during wars to get recognition for what they did, and not just a specific group of people,” he adds.
But the white poppy isn’t a new idea, it was actually conceived 85 years ago by the Co-Operative Women’s Guild, a national organization giving voice to women in cooperatives. The symbol was used by non-violence and faith organizations, as well as widows and children of fallen soldiers wanting to honour their loved ones.
The Guild worried that red poppies were overly associated with the celebration of the British armed forces that the original message, ‘never again,’ had become lost in the rubble.
Lyn Adamson, national co-chair of the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (VOW Peace) explained in a Global News article that white poppies are worn to acknowledge that many civilians were also killed in war. “Red poppies are generally for the veterans, the white poppy recognizes that, in fact the majority of deaths in war are civilians.”
The white poppy is also meant to: emphasize that peace is a better route towards social change than war, encompass the environmental devastation wars can cause, commit to peace, and challenge any attempts in glamorizing war.
Tonisha Taylor, third-year children, childhood and youth student, believes it’s a good cause. “I don’t think it’s an issue because we can still recognize the red poppy, and also accept other minority groups that were also victims of war.”
Taylor adds that she would likely wear the white poppy to recognize everybody in equality.
Unfortunately, the Royal Canadian Legion did not hand out white poppies this year. The organization represents 275,000 veterans and oversees the distribution of red poppies in Canada, describing it as an “all-encompassing remembrance symbol.”
Chamika, fourth-year biomedical student, says: “If there’s no limit to where red poppy donations go, and if anyone with any background can benefit from our donations, then I don’t see the point of a new poppy.”
But the controversy between the two different-coloured flowers lies in how and what is being remembered and symbolized, respectfully.
“There’s always people that are going to oppose the idea,” says Stephanie Njoku, second-year criminology student. “Introducing something new is scary to people.
The red has been traditional, so bringing something new in that could clash will cause some opposition.”
Some believe that since the white poppy recognizes all victims of war, this includes “Nazi representation.” A concern also voiced by Chamika.
Additionally, there’s a stigma about the white poppy being ‘anti-remembrance’, as opposed to ‘pro-peace’. Some students believe it is anti-remembrance, and the colour plays an important role in meaning.
Sharmila Omadat, fourth-year English student, believes the white poppy recedes the epitome of war and bloodshed. She explains: “I feel the white poppy purifies Remembrance Day because it’s white, it’s pure. I interpret it as relating to innocence and purity. The red, in contrast, represents bloodshed.
“When I think about that, it takes away from the rawness of the war, and I think preferably the red is better just because red is a vibrant colour of blood—it shows what has been lost. The white, in other words, kind of recedes from that importance.”
There are some, including the PPU, who believe the red poppy has been moulded into a political tool. At first, it represented mourning, commemoration, and a pledge to cease future wars. But now, it is used by political organizations, including Britain First, to promote their causes.
Others even choose to abstain from wearing any type of poppy because of “poppy policing” or “poppy fascism,” where people are criticized for not wearing the flower. Also because of the growing concern around the poppy’s association with military power.
Then there are those who even don the endearing, but not-as-common, purple poppy—meant to commemorate the fallen animals of war, and those who serve today.
Regarding the red poppy’s British ties, Symon Hill, co-ordinator of the PPU, wrote: “I am saddened by the idea that compassion should stop at national borders. If we care only about people from our country, why not care only about people from our town? Or only from our family? The logical conclusion is to end up caring only about yourself.”
“My white poppy doesn’t mean I’m against remembrance,” explains Hill. “I wear it precisely because I believe in remembrance so much. Remembering the past means recognizing its complexities, asking difficult questions, learning from history. If we don’t learn from the past, we are condemned to repeat it.”
For others however, the red poppy is still ideal. “I would be opposed to wearing the white poppy, it just bothers me a little bit,” says Omadat.
However, most York students are open to wearing both—believing the poppy, any poppy, is merely a symbol, and that the significance behind commemorating Remembrance Day and fallen soldiers should remain intact.
Collins says it doesn’t matter to him which poppy he wears. “It’s a symbol, and a community makes a symbol what it is. I would wear both poppies, the thought is all that really matters.”
Njoku states that she wouldn’t mind wearing both, either. “It is important that you remember those who passed away, and wearing both wouldn’t be a problem.”
Chamika, in fact, believes the colour should not matter at all if there is a collective purpose. She asks: “Why does their need to be a division when we can have a combined cause and support?”
With files from Jessica Sripaskaran, Global News, and The Canadian Press