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Photo by Carolyn Pogue

White poppies

On Remembrance Day, let’s honour war veterans — and those working for peace

By Carolyn Pogue

War has changed dramatically since John McCrae, sick of battlefield carnage, sat in his ambulance and wrote poetry. In his time, 90 percent of war casualties were soldiers. Today, 90 percent are civilians: farmers, kids, librarians.

And yet, teachers this year will rely on the same old activities to mark Nov. 11: white crosses and red poppy art will decorate bulletin boards; children will write poetry about weeping mothers; students will listen to a veteran talk about valour and not understand the difference between then and now. Then, on Nov. 12, cenotaph wreaths will blow lonely in the wind.

But we could add to those stories this Remembrance Day. We could talk about the white poppy, the symbol of remembrance for civilians who die in war.

Women started making white poppies in Britain when they heard the war drums begin again after the First World War. They wore them to symbolize their desire for peace and have been wearing them since. According to its website, the Peace Pledge Union’s white poppy “symbolizes the belief that there are better ways to resolve conflicts than by killing people. Our work, primarily educational, draws attention to many of our social values and habits which make continuing violence the likely outcome.”

Women in Black in Edmonton and Calgary began distributing white poppies a few years ago. The Legion took offense and threatened a lawsuit. This still bewilders me. Don’t soldiers want peace, too? Didn’t they risk their lives so we could have freedom of expression and peace? Privately and publicly I invited the Legion president for coffee. I received no response. I wear both poppies. People always ask about the white one — and where to find one.

Remembrance Day is more complicated these days, because of Afghanistan. The prime minister says Canadians respect and honour the military and the sacrifices made by young citizens. But do we?

One of the most haunting November news photos I’ve seen is of school children running a food drive for poverty-stricken retired soldiers. Does Canadian respect and honour mean that veterans must beg for food?

In Newfoundland recently, I met Ron L. Edwards, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Ron served in Iraq and had been a homeless vet after he left the Marines. He wrote a song in support of homeless veterans called You Have Forgotten Me. The song tells some hard truths. Homelessness for some veterans is a Canadian reality, too.

This Remembrance Day, I hope we can remember more than red poppies and white crosses. We can remember the millions who work for a world where peace prevails. Two Canadian heroes who inspire hope in me are Roméo Dallaire, a retired lieutenant general and humanitarian, and Dr. Samantha Nutt, co-founder and executive director of War Child Canada. On Nov. 11, after the cenotaph ceremony, you might wish to learn about their work.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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