Today I attended my first Remembrance Day ceremony since retiring from the Royal Canadian Navy. With Remembrance Day on a Sunday last year, I had other duties to attend to, and the last time I had been at the Cenotaph for the ceremony I had actually been presiding.
It was much as it has always been; several hundred people, some in uniform, some veterans, several groups of children, young families, many of those too young to have been in World War II or Korea but realistically too old to have been in Afghanistan. There seemed to be fewer than at the height of the Afghanistan War, but that may just have been the weather. It could have been far colder, but it was cold. Though not as cold as Taylor Field last night and 30,000 plus had turned up there for a football game.
Unlike the more elaborate service at the Brandt Centre, the Cenotaph service is concise and to the point. But also, unlike the Brandt Centre service, the Cenotaph allows for the laying of wreaths from most any group or individual that wants to present one. It seemed to me that this year there were fewer wreaths from families in memory of specific war dead. As has been the case with Cenotaph services for as long as I can remember, a wreath was laid "in memory of seven brothers," though I don't recall that we have ever heard the name of that tragic family.
I did something today that I had never done before for Remembrance Day. I wore two poppies: one red and one white.
There has been controversy in Canada over the past week about white poppies. The red poppy is the traditional symbol of remembrance, and some people claimed the white poppy was an insult to the fallen and to veterans, disrespecting their sacrifice.
From time to time over the years I have heard people express the concern that Remembrance Day and the red poppy glorified war. I've never thought that was particularly true. Certainly the origin of both the commemoration and the symbol seemed rooted in the hope that an annual remembrance of the bloodiest conflict in human history to that point would move people to say, "Never Again," to view armed conflict as a highly undesirable last resort.
But the narrative of Remembrance Day ebbs and flows over the years. At times, "Never Again" seems to give way to "Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori" the Roman Horace's poetic claim that "it is sweet and proper to die for your country." Of late, it strikes me we have been leaning closer to the latter than the former.
The red poppy emerged as a symbol of remembrance, inspired by John McRae's poem, almost immediately after World War I and was adopted in the United States and throughout the Commonwealth by the early 1920s. But only a short time later, concerned that the public remembrance had become too martial and warlike, the white poppy was promoted as a commitment to peace. There may have been some who advocated wearing the white poppy instead of the red, but most of the material I've come across promoted wearing the two together. The National Post has a very good backgrounder on the red and white poppy "controversy" here. They point out that the coexistence of red and white poppies for Remembrance Day is taken pretty much for granted in the UK, the only place where white poppies have been continuously in production over the entire period.
I don't buy for a second the idea that the white poppy (especially when worn together with the red) is disrespectful to veterans or to the fallen. This is a trumped up "controversy" designed to have citizens outraged over symbols and trifles instead of the real disdain and disrespect being meted out to veterans over the past couple of decades.
What is disrespectful is the way our federal governments (and not just the current one) have been scaling back support for veterans old and new. Pensions for wounded soldiers have been replaced with a paltry lump sum payment. Nine Veterans Affairs offices have been closed across the country. There are frequent and unfortunately credible reports of wounded soldiers having their discharges rushed through so that they will be released before they are eligible for a military pension.
So why did I wear a white poppy?
In part it was because I really do believe that the two sides of the Remembrance Day narrative need to be balanced. We honour the sacrifice of the fallen and, because we respect that sacrifice, we do not want to see more young men and women march off to war.
In part it was say that I do not buy into the antics of the right wing rage machine that deflect our attention from real issues by creating phony ones. The white poppy "controversy," like the "war on Christmas" "controversy," is a complete fraud from start to finish.
Mostly though, I wore a white poppy with my red poppy to take a stand against the bullying language I had seen all over social media, some of which seemed to condone if not call for violence against those who would wear a white poppy. If not for that, I doubt I'd've gone to the trouble of tracking down a white poppy to wear.
I served 25 years in the Royal Canadian Navy. Yes, it was all Reserve time and no, I never saw combat, but it was 25 years nonetheless. If anyone wants to suggest that I don't "respect the veterans" or don't "support the troops," then I challenge them to come and say it to my face instead of hiding like a coward behind a social media avatar.
Most (though not all) the commentary I saw condemning the white poppy - was from people who never served, who never put on our country's uniform. With all due respect, I don't feel any need to take lessons in patriotism from them.
At every Remembrance Day ceremony in Canada today, in every Remembrance Day message from every politician, we heard that those who served and those who never came home were defending our freedom. I agree.
And I can think of no greater disrespect to veterans and to the fallen than to self-censor on Remembrance Day and to take off a white poppy because of a handful of outraged bullies. I will not disrespect the war dead by feartly laying aside the freedom they won at such cost.