As we approach the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to mark the signing of the armistice that ended the First World War, our political, media and military elites are once again blanketing the public sphere with martial patriotism.
NDP MP Don Davies got the ball rolling with some opportunistic capitalist bashing that cheaply covered for his jingoism. After Amazon-owned grocery store chain Whole Foods banned its employees from wearing the poppy around Remembrance Day—a policy implemented in response to workers expressing solidarity with Black Lives Matter—Davies put forward a motion in the House of Commons condemning the retailer for prohibiting its staff from displaying the symbol. He subsequently published a statement, “Defend the Poppy,” noting:
American billionaire Jeff Bezos’ company Whole Foods tried to ban their employees from displaying the poppy while at work. Thankfully, due to massive public pressure and a condemnation by Parliament, the company has quickly reversed their decision. But no Canadian should ever be told they can’t wear the poppy to remember our veterans and the sacrifices they made to preserve our free society from the horrors of fascism. Our veterans sacrificed too much. It’s time to enshrine in law the right for every Canadian to wear a poppy in the workplace so this situation never arises again.
NDP just introduced a Motion in the House to condemn Whole Foods and billionaire owner Jeff Bezos for prohibiting their employees from wearing poppies to honour veterans on Remembrance Day. It passed unanimously!— Don Davies MP (@DonDavies) November 6, 2020
Not to be outdone, journalist and producer Mackay Taggart, Global’s Regional Director of News for Ontario, sent an email to his staff stating, “Poppies should be worn by all Global News anchors, reporters and radio hosts appearing on television and in online videos from Sunday November 1st to Wednesday November 11th.” The email also counselled Global employees to wear a poppy while off work. “In today’s era of social media,” he added, “it would also be good practice for all our personalities to be diligent and mindful of wearing a poppy when out in public.”
As I have detailed elsewhere, the Royal Canadian Legion owns a trademark copyright of the poppy symbol in Canada. To help the historically militaristic and imperialist organization fundraise, the federal government granted it a monopoly over poppy distribution more than a decade before Canada got involved in the fight against “fascism,” which Davies wants us to believe the poppy represents.
The wearing of red poppies was inspired by the 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian army officer John McCrae. The pro-war ballad calls on Canadians to “take up our quarrel with the foe” and was used to promote war bonds and recruit soldiers during the Great War of 1914-1918.
As Davies ought to know, Remembrance Day marks the end of this conflict, one in which 16 million people died in just four years, 58,000 of them Canadian. The First World War was a craven waste of human life enabled by industrial slaughter and driven by imperial and capitalist ambitions. The ruling elites of France, Germany, England and Russia saw war as a way to weaken working class challenges in their countries. The other major force that spurred the conflagration was inter-imperial rivalry in Europe. It was a struggle for global supremacy between up-and-coming Germany and the imperial powers of the day, Britain and France. In fact, support for the British Empire was Ottawa’s primary motivation in joining the war. As Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden saw it, the fight was “to put forth every effort and to make every sacrifice necessary to ensure the integrity and maintain the honour of our empire.”
During the First World War Canadian troops supported colonialism in the Caribbean. Canadians also fought to conquer German West and East Africa, as well as Iraq and Palestine. In East Africa alone, close to one million people perished as a direct result of the war.
The horror of trench warfare in Europe is still difficult to wrap one’s head around. At Passchendaele, nearly 16,000 Canadian were killed or seriously wounded while fighting for a few yards of terrain over the course of just four days. During the Battle for Hill 70 in 1917, fighting from August 15 to 25 cost Canada almost 10,000 casualties. Popular histories of the event boast that Canadians “killed or wounded an estimated 25,000 Germans” during fighting for control of an ultimately inconsequential mound of dirt.
The total number of Germans and others killed by Canadians during the war is unknown. Yet, contrary to romanticized accounts of industrial slaughter in the trenches of France, Canadian soldiers—like those on all sides—committed atrocities against surrendering German troops and captured prisoners of war. According to a 1929 book written by English poet Robert Graves, “the troops that had the worst reputation for acts of violence against prisoners were the Canadians.” One Canadian soldier wrote his parents, “after losing half of my company there [Neuville-Vitasse], we rushed them and they had the nerve to throw up their hands and cry, ‘Kamerad.’ All the ‘Kamerad’ they got was a foot of cold steel thro’ them from my remaining men while I blew their brains out with my revolver without any hesitation.”
Some Canadian commanders even ordered their soldiers not to take prisoners. In The Politics of Surrender: Canadian Soldiers and the Killing of Prisoners in the Great War, official military historian Tim Cook points out that the evidence of these killings came from interviews the CBC conducted with aging veterans for a 1960s radio series. “Dozens of Canadians testified to the execution of German prisoners,” Cook said of the more than 600 interviews he conducted. Yet, he admitted, “none of these grim accounts found their way into the final 17-hour script.”
Nobody in their right mind should celebrate the First World War. Any attempt to glamourize its barbarity overshadows that period’s pacifist legacy and other traditions, such as peacekeeping and diplomacy. In the words of Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, authors of The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War:
[S]logans only go so far. The politics of peace and war, of memory and commemoration, in Canada—then and now—are always more complicated. Contrary to those who say there was one big, valorous war to which all right-thinking Canadians subscribed, there have been many competing and conflicting ways of understanding the Great War, and war in general.
But what about Canada’s other military deployments where we continue to exert an armed presence in various corners of the globe?
How many Canadians, for instance, are aware of Ottawa’s deployment of 385 soldiers to Sudan in 1884 to defend Britain’s position on the upper Nile? Or how about the 7,000 Canadians who were dispatched to strengthen Britain’s position in southern Africa during the 1899–1902 Boer War? And who remembers the 26,000 Canadians sent to Korea in the early 1950s to help turn a civil war into a multi-nation conflict that left as many as four million dead?
In the 1990s, Canada contributed significantly to the first Iraq war and participated in NATO’s 78-day bombing of Serbia. Both of these conflicts were crimes against humanity. So was the war in Afghanistan—a conflict in which 40,000 Canadian troops were deployed between 2001 and 2014—and the bombing of Libya in 2011.
Canadian soldiers have only fought in one morally justifiable conflict: the Second World War. And even in that case, it was the threat of Nazi expansionism to British interests, not opposition to fascism or anti-Semitism, that led Ottawa to battle.
While some Canadian military deployments under the auspices of the United Nations have contributed to peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts around the world, that legacy is far from untarnished. In early 2004, Canadian troops helped carry out regime change in Haiti that illegally ousted the country’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, while violently suppressing popular resistance in the slums of Port-au-Prince.
In 1960, Canadian troops were dispatched as part of a UN mission to the Congo. They enabled the assassination of independence leader Patrice Lumumba with a Canadian colonel, Jean Berthiaume, assisting Joseph Mobutu in recapturing the popular leader.
Do red poppies commemorate the Congolese and Haitians harmed by Canadian peacekeepers, or the Afghans and Libyans killed by Canadians in the 2000s, or any number of the victims of our military actions abroad? By focusing exclusively on ‘our’ side, Remembrance Day poppies reinforce a sense that Canada’s cause is righteous. At worst, they create an ideological climate that supports never-ending militarism and future wars.
Canadians of conscience should not help fund the Royal Canadian Legion, an organization that retains exclusivity to profit from a powerful symbol with the backing of politicians. Nor should they promote the martial patriotism that red poppies represent.
After all, the decision to wear a poppy in tribute is a personal one. To remember all victims of war, there should be nothing wrong with wearing the white poppy of peace, or no poppy at all, as a rebuke to fervent nationalism and the implicit support of militarism at home and abroad.
Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.