Red or white, don’t be contrite

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Just over a week ago, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization — the Rideau Institute — announced plans to hand out white poppies at a local Remembrance Day ceremony. The organization says the white poppies are meant to promote peace and stand as alternative to the red poppy.

While the red poppy should remain the primary symbol of Remembrance Day, as its central message of sacrifice is indispensible, the white poppy has created a valuable dialogue about the historical and ideological context in which the red poppy is presented.

For the vast majority of veterans and other red poppy boosters, the red poppy is a revered symbol that represents the sacrifices that veterans made for Canada and its ideals.

In light of these virtuous connotations and the solemnity of the occasion, the plan to hand out white poppies at a Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa was rightly criticized as disrespectful. For proposing this tactic, the Rideau Institute comes across as attention-seeking and confrontational at a time when confrontation isn’t productive.

It is important to note, however, that the white poppy has a long history going back to the 1920s. Since that time, some veterans have worn the symbol to denote pacifism or to disagree with some aspects of Western foreign policy.

Moreover, while both poppies are old symbols, the conversations they provoke as a pair are relevant to our modern political context. After all, the red poppy is said to be worn in remembrance of those who have served in all Canadians wars, including, most controversially, the war in Afghanistan.

The recent rebranding of the War of 1812 by the Conservative government should make us even more wary about how the history of war is being used to shape our perceptions.

Both the red poppy and the white poppy will continue their long traditions for many Novembers to come. White poppy boosters should resist the urge to be confrontational on solemn occasions and red
poppy partisans can rest assured that theirs remains the central symbol of remembrance.

In combination, the red poppy and white poppy are provoking healthy debates that shouldn’t be quieted; they are a testament to our freedom.

Journal Editorial Board

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