White poppy, white feather

Here in Canada there’s been a controversy of over the poppy worn in remembrance of the Canada’s war dead. The red poppy is sold by the Royal Canadian Legion in the run-up to Remembrance Day. Pinned on the lapel and bought for a nominal fee, they signal solidarity with Canada’s veterans and Canada’s war deads, not incidentally helping to fund the Legion’s operations.

On my native Prince Edward Island, a new variant of the poppy has appeared. The white poppy, more recently created by the Island Peace Committee, is now being handed out to commemorate war dead generally and promote pacifism. Many are unhappy.

“The red Legion poppy, in my opinion, represents the nostalgia and romanticizing of war,” said Ian Kelley, an activist in the Ottawa White Poppy Coalition. “We should remember that you don’t have to go to war to get peace.”

But Jim Ross, president of the Legion’s P.E.I. provincial command and a former lieutenant-commander in the Canadian Navy, said the Legion owns the rights to the poppy symbol, and the national office will most likely ask many of the various activist groups to stop the white-poppy campaign.

“The red poppies are not political statements and the Legion doesn’t have any political positions. The poppies are simply a symbol of remembrance. Nothing more,” said Mr. Ross. “It seems to me that the people who usually distribute these poppies and do these sort of things have never spent a day in their life in the service of their country.”

[. . .]

The white poppy was first introduced in the U.K., by the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1933. The Peace Pledge Union distributes boxes of the poppies to peace groups outside the U.K.

“I did some research on the poppies and I thought it would be a good idea to bring them to Canada,” Mr. Kelley said, adding the white poppy more accurately reflects the nature of what Remembrance Day should be about.

“The white poppy views all losses of life in war as tragedies,” said Mr. Kelley. “I think the traditional ceremonies don’t do that, because it’s a day where everyone puts the focus on the soldiers. The white poppy also remembers the civilians.”

The white poppy does have a well-established pedigree, as the above article notes, particularly but not only in the United Kingdom. White’s a colour that counts. When I heard of the controversy, I remembered the white feather, a traditional symbol of cowardice. It was used to some effect in the early days of the First World War, when (as Nicola Gullace wrote in her 1997 paper), young British women organized in the Order of the White Feather walked around British cities and gave out these feathers to men of draftable age who had failed to answer the call of duty. Then they died in the trenches, or came back horribly changed.

The dispute over the red and white poppies isn’t going to end. If anything, here in Canada the white poppy may gain from its new media prominence. The two symbols, so similar as they are, speak to two radically different perceptions of the 20th century’s Thirty Years War (1914-1945), the official and a popular counter-narrative. Insofar as I’ve a weakness for counter-narratives, I don’t see any intrinsic problem with the white poppy. I won’t pickup a white poppy though, since the red poppy really is fine by me; I’m not a pacifist, and in the context of a never-invaded Canada is the sufferings of the soldiers symbolized directly by the red that are particularly relevant. Besides, I fall in the age group ravaged by the Order of the White Feather and its ilk; there but for the grace of late birth go I. The red poppy is the one that speaks much more directly to me.

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4 Responses to White poppy, white feather

  1. Is the rhetoric in Canada as bad as it is in America? A comment like:

    “It seems to me that the people who usually distribute these poppies and do these sort of things have never spent a day in their life in the service of their country.”

    seems so loaded to me, and can’t possibly end well for Ross.

  2. I don’t believe it can end well for him either. There’s bound to be soldiers, sailors, aircrew no longer actively serving, but out there who will wear either the white poppy on its own or in tandem with the red.

  3. “The red poppies are not political statements and the Legion doesn’t have any political positions. The poppies are simply a symbol of remembrance. Nothing more,”

    I hate to argue rhetoric with rhetoric, but in answer to this asinine comment, all I can say is that there is nothing that is not political. The red poppy is a signifier for Ross’s form of remembrance; “remembrance” is not something that the Legion has been exclusively licensed.

  4. Pingback: Remembering The Fallen « Post-ordinandy

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