The Emancipation of the Poppy

How Peace Poppies are standing up for all victims of war 

Megan Amato // Associate News Editor 

There are symbols in our lives that are so familiar to us that we often don’t stop to question the meaning behind them. The red poppy, often sold by Legions worldwide and worn on the lapel of many, is one of these. We are first indoctrinated to wear them in primary school Remembrance Day assemblies, where we are told they are to honour and remember veterans who fought for our freedom during the various wars. But what are we supposed to be remembering, and freedom for whom? 

Criticizing the red poppy is often labelled as anti-veteran, but initiatives like the Vancouver Peace Poppies, a local organization that advocates for peaceful conflict resolution, are not campaigning against veterans themselves. Instead, it is a nuanced attempt to challenge the disconnection from war that red poppies have come to represent and instead focus on remembering all the victims of war. 

In 1921, the red poppy was introduced. The now iconic symbol was inspired by John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields.” Just 12 years later, the Cooperative Women’s Guild began selling homemade white peace poppies in Britain to promote pacifism in the face of rising nationalism and militarization in Europe. Three years later, the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), a pacific organization who campaigns against the causes of war, began distributing the peace poppies, and continue to do across the UK and throughout the world. 

“White poppies were introduced in 1933 by the Co-operative Women’s Guild, although the first known suggestion of them was made in 1926 in discussion within the No More War movement—which grew out of the conscientious objection movement in World War One, and later became part of the PPU,” said Symon Hill, Campaigns and Communications Manager for PPU. “White poppies represent remembrance for all victims of war, a commitment to peace and a rejection of militarism.”  

It wasn’t until the last decade or so, however, that those white poppies started having a presence both abroad and in Canada. Teresa Gagné, co-founder of Vancouver Peace Poppies, remembers wearing a handmade white poppy sold by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom for years before distributing them herself. “People would come up to me and ask about the meaning behind the poppy. They weren’t offended, only curious,” Gagné said. This interest in the white poppy inspired Gagné to create the Vancouver Peace Poppies in 2008 with Denis Laplante. Their first year, they began with a small distribution of 50 handmade poppies. The operation has grown since then and today they order from the PPU, although Gagné still calls it a “kitchen-table operation.” 

Before starting Vancouver Peace Poppies, Gagné contacted a distributor of white poppies in Alberta for advice, only to discover that they had stopped distributing them after the Royal Canadian Legion threatened legal action for breaching their trademark on the poppy. In fact, Gagné’s contact wasn’t the only distributor to receive threats from the Legion. To them, the white poppy was an attack on their brand and an insult to veterans.  

Gagné, however, disagreed with this verdict. The Royal Canadian Legion may have trademarked the red poppy in Canada, but she didn’t believe that they had legal rights to all poppies. Since Gagné began distributing in 2008, she hasn’t heard a word. She says that it isn’t often veterans themselves that are offended but rather those who feel obliged to be offended on veterans’ behalf. “It’s also important to remember that the Legion doesn’t speak for all veterans and it’s no longer the largest veteran organization in Canada,” Gagné said. “Many veterans wear the white poppy themselves, either alongside the traditional red one or on its own.”   

Nor does she believe that wearing the white poppy is an insult to veterans. “We owe it to veterans, as much as anyone, to find an alternative way to conflict resolution,” Gagné said, emphasizing that the white poppy isn’t meant to ostracize veterans but to include all victims of war in its message. “War doesn’t work. It has never worked. It’s estimated that 50 million children have their education disrupted by war and they never get that time back.” Gagné also added that war is not only damaging socially but ecologically and economically, too. “We need to remember the cost of war on the environment, food security and safety. Refugees fleeing war are often leaving their crops and livestock behind, and those fields cannot be safely farmed for years.”  

Remembrance Day ceremonies in Canada have been traditionally centered around veterans of wars that Canada has participated in, which excludes most newer Canadians. Many immigrants have come to Canada as refugees of war, some from the Vietnam War and the Korean War and some who may have been on the other side of the conflict. “The focus needs to be broadened,” said Gagné. Peace Poppies holds a ceremony on Remembrance Day for both universal victims of war and those from specific communities. “Our goal is the same as the Legion. We want to keep Remembrance Day relevant, keep it important and not forget the costs of war. It’s not just about valour, courage and nation building. The costs and consequences of war need to be remembered.”  

Profits from the poppies go to funding Peace Poppies’ school campaign, which sees the poppies delivered to classrooms around British Columbia and Canada. The proceeds also helps support donations of the poppies to those in lower socio-economic communities such as the Downtown Eastside. You can find the poppies at many shops and cafes scattered around the Lower Mainland.   

The People’s Co-op Bookstore was the very first to carry Vancouver’s Peace Poppies and has continued to order them every year since. Located on Commercial Drive, the bookshop was established in 1945 by a coalition of activists, trade unionists, unitarians and other groups who wanted to create a space where books on progressive and marxist ideas could be found. Rolf Maurer, a volunteer and elected board member of the bookstore, agreed that the meaning behind the traditional red poppy has been lost. “It’s been hijacked by people who want to build up our military,” he said. For this reason, Maurer appreciates the message behind the white poppy, as it offers a way of remembering without the sense of “nostalgia” that’s become attached to traditional symbols of Remembrance Day. 

This militarization of Remembrance Day is the reason Spartacus Books, a non-profit collective bookshop, choose not to carry any poppy in their shop. “We feel Remembrance Day has been twisted into a jingoistic celebration of the military,” said Saskia Cseh, a member of the Spartacus Collective and student at CapU. “Remembrance Day was established after the First World War as a solemn reminder of the horrors of war, in the hopes that such a terrible conflict might never be seen again. But that is not seen in the modern Remembrance Day ceremonies, which instead focus on military tradition and glorifying the Imperialist wars which are waged across the globe to this day, in the name of profit, freedom, or just pure bloodlust.”  

Whether we choose to wear a white poppy or a red one, or perhaps none at all, we should take a moment of self-reflection to understand the meaning behind the symbolism—or lack thereof—and what we choose to say through that action.  

For more information on where you can find Peace Poppies and their Remembrance Day ceremony, please visit: 

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