White poppy wearing Canadians look to broaden meaning of Remembrance Day

By Scott Costen

ONE of Canada’s largest distributors of white lapel poppies says the Covid-19 pandemic is making it harder to spread its alternative Remembrance Day message.

“Orders are certainly down overall,” Teresa Gagné of Vancouver Peace Poppies (VPP) told Redaction Politics. “Our school orders are down significantly.”

Founded by Gagné and her partner Denis Laplante, VPP encourages Canadians to wear white poppies to commemorate all victims of war, including civilians, and to call for peaceful forms of conflict resolution.

The group gave out 50 handmade white poppies during its first year in 2008. Last year, it distributed more than 6,000.

VPP gets its cloth poppy supplies from the Peace Pledge Union in the United Kingdom. “They’re quite durable,” Gagné said of the poppies. “You can use them for years if you take care of them.”

Volunteers participate in an annual “kitchen table operation” to assemble the poppies and mail them to schools, church groups, community organizations and individuals across Canada.

“We offer the poppies by suggested donation, but people are welcome to give more or less,” she said. “We run our campaign as a consciousness-raiser, not a fundraiser. Our goal is to break even each year.”

In addition to distributing white poppies, VPP provides peace-focused classroom resources to interested teachers and school officials. It also organizes an annual memorial service on Remembrance Day in partnership with the Vancouver Unitarians.

Gagné and Laplante first started wearing white poppies in response to changes they saw in Canadian foreign policy.

“We had been feeling more and more conflicted as the government abandoned Canada’s peacekeeping role and seemed to be embracing war as a means of resolving disputes,” she said. “We started wearing handmade white poppies alongside the red ones, and they proved to be a really thought-provoking conversation starter.”

VPP’s goal is not to displace the Royal Canadian Legion (RCL) or its red poppy campaign, but to broaden what Remembrance Day means, Gagné said.

In her view, the group’s universal approach helps make November 11 more inclusive to more people.

“By opening our hearts to remember all the victims of all wars, I think we help to make Remembrance Day more relevant to new Canadians who don’t necessarily share our war history,” she said.

While Gagné is happy to wear both the red and white poppies, the RCL would prefer people forego the latter.

“The Royal Canadian Legion’s red poppy is an inclusive symbol of remembrance for fallen Veterans, from all backgrounds,” communications manager Nujma Bond told Redaction Politics by email. “We hope people respect this, and choose other symbols for other causes.”

Bond said the pandemic has negatively affected Legion activities and contributed to the closure of 21 branches across the country. The RCL is hopeful a recently announced federal aid package will prevent further closures.

The organization’s core mandate of supporting veterans is still being carried out despite the challenges posed by public health restrictions, Bond said.

“Our Legion volunteers have gone above and beyond to ensure the Veterans in their communities are doing well, and taking them food, medications as needed, or just checking in to say hi.”

As for the RCL’s red poppy campaign, Bond said the organization is getting creative to overcome the limitations posed by Covid-19.

“Because of pandemic-related restrictions we’ve encouraged our Branches to rely more on stand-alone boxes to reduce the overall risk to volunteers,” she wrote. “We are also piloting 250 new ‘Pay Tribute’ tap and pay donation boxes.”

While Legion officials may take a dim view of the VPP’s work, Gagné said she hasn’t received any complaints from veterans themselves.

“In all the years that we have been distributing white poppies, I have never heard personally from a veteran who said they were offended,” she said.

Featured Image: Vancouver Peace Poppies

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