In Flanders Fields: Canada does Remembrance well

Steve Saideman on what the poppy has come to mean for him.

By: /
11 November, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

When I first moved to Canada, I was surprised to see poppies on everyone’s jackets in November. I had never seen such displays of ‘Remembrance’ growing up in the U.S. I was well aware that Veterans Day (what Americans call November 11) emerged out of Armistice Day, but I did not know that wearing poppies was something one was supposed to do.

I recently saw an American tweet that poppies are for Memorial Day, repeating the stance of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that in the United States, Veterans Day celebrates all veterans, while Memorial Day is for remembering those lost in America’s wars. That might be the distinction that the VA department prefers, but I have never seen poppies worn on Memorial Day in the United States, and neither has anyone else I know.

So I guess it means that I have gone native after 12-plus years in Canada that I am appalled by the stance of the Department of Veterans Affairs. November 11 means something very specific – the day the First World War came to an end. The last weekend in May has little historical meaning attached to it. Memorial Day does not mark a specific anniversary.

The blindness to history that this “poppies in May” stance represents is both amusing and annoying. It is typically American to be so short-sighted and downplay the First World War. That war is usually depicted by Americans as a wasted effort, given that the Europeans negotiated such a harsh peace for Germany that they made the Second World War inevitable.

While I understand why the United States changed the name of Armistice Day after the Second World War, I do regret that the American people don’t have this small but very meaningful way to observe the losses of wars. Yes, there are Memorial Day parades and moments at cemeteries, but it has mostly come to represent the beginning of summer with the release of big summer movies, barbecue parties and the like. In Canada (and other Commonwealth countries), Remembrance Day and the associated poppies have weight — the emotional resonance that comes with recognition of the sacrifices made in the past and still to be made in the future.

The irony is that in many ways we are far more aware of the costs of war today. Previous generations suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but mostly had to bury it. These days, we know that there are many wounds suffered in war that are not so visible and more effort is being made, belatedly to be sure, to address these wounds.

The events in Ottawa two weeks ago have also made us more aware of the importance of these symbols. When there was initial talk of removing the ceremonial guard from the War Memorial, the pushback was immediate and impossible to resist. When we talk about nationalism, we tend to be critical because politicians often use it to advance dangerous foreign policies, but in this case, I found the displays of Canadian nationalism to be very positive. Around this country, Canadians identified with those harmed in the attacks, were proud of our sergeant-at-arms, and demonstrated resilience by gathering at Parliament and the War Memorial.

So, on this November 11, I feel in some ways more Canadian than American. I am proud of how Canada has reacted to recent events; I am proud to wear the poppy this November; I am proud of my daughter’s shock and dismay that there are no poppies to be seen in her American college town (that she went to John McRae Secondary School might have something to do with it); And I wish that Americans would learn from their friends about how to do ‘Remembrance’ well.

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