Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why I'm Not Wearing a Poppy This Year

I used to be a schoolteacher, and every Remembrance Day, I would teach that we remember the brave people who fought for us, but also to remember the tragedies of history so as not to repeat them. This was particularly important, to ease children's fears of death brought on by discussion of war. I taught the children how to make their own poppies out of construction paper.

Remembrance Day has always been important to me. Being of Japanese descent, my Father and uncles - all born in Canada - were imprisoned during WWII by their own government, along with the entire Japanese Canadian community, and when they were released, they pressed for the right to take part in Canada's war efforts to prove their loyalty to Canada, and when granted that right, they did just that. I've always felt obliged to wear a poppy in respect to those who fought to protect our country and our freedoms - especially because a number of those people are my own relatives.

But in recent years I've become aware of the controversies over modern wars, and Canada's involvement of them - not really wars at all, but unprovoked invasions. Canada did not send troops to Iraq, although Chretien wanted to; he was stopped by public outcry. Canada did, however, send troops to Afghanistan to free up American troops to fight in Iraq. The atrocities committed against Iraqis and Afghanis continue to be revealed by a reluctant mainstream media. Nevertheless, the majority of Canadians believe that the Iraq invasion was wrong, that American war resisters are right to refuse to take part, and that Canadian troops must be brought home from Afghanistan. These "wars" are not about conquest or defending our rights and freedoms; they are about stealing resources and keeping the war economy healthy.

On the other side of these facts is a Canadian government which is waging a propaganda campaign with attempts to conceal and minimize stories of our soldiers who have died senselessly. It seems we are reminded to honour the brave men and women who fight for us at every turn, with "wear red" campaigns, "support our troops" ribbons on our cars, highways renamed as memorials, memorial coins in our pocket change (special designs on circulation coins: a loonie, a nickel, and at least three different quarters), and even in the cancellation stamp on my mail this morning. Of course, these campaigns - all showing government involvement - are simply well-intentioned attempts to honour our soldiers. Aren't they?

With so many of these questionable actions - while the government tries to bolster flagging support to keep troops in Afghanistan, it is no wonder the poppy is called into question. So I was delighted, a couple of years ago, to learn about the "peace poppy": a white poppy which specifically emphasizes the message of peace - which I'd felt was an integral part of our familiar red poppy all along. But was I wrong? I'd gotten the impression that the white poppy didn't go over well with veterans' groups; this year, the Royal Canadian Legion, which owns the trademark to the poppy, is threatening to sue distributors of the white poppy. A Legion spokesperson says, "The use of the poppy for anything other than remembrance is not acceptable." Come again? Since when is promoting peace in opposition to remembering our war dead?

The really fucked up thing here is that, growing up in a capitalist society, I'd accept the economic greed argument - that the Legion owns the trademark and wants to protects its poppy sales - before I'd want to accept that veterans are arguing against peace. But that appears to be what is happening. In another of many articles on this issue published over the last week, one veteran criticized those wearing white poppies, saying that they had probably never fought in a war.

Why is it that so many people today think that it is acceptable to try to shut down debate by painting those they disagree with as unpatriotic, or uncaring? Trying to take someone else's voice away - by implying that they haven't the right to engage in debate - is a form of censorship. Correct me if I'm wrong, but freedom of speech is one of the rights that was fought for and protected; we are not going to violate that right for the sake of this little argument.

The whole issue has left a bad taste in my mouth. I no longer feel any sense of obligation to put on a red poppy, and if people can't understand the very elementary message of the white one, well, I won't wear that one either. No one can take my feelings or beliefs away from me, and I won't have them misconstrued by people standing on street corners selling plastic flowers.

And so, on November 11, 2010, instead of a poppy, I am wearing this blog post.

To those who would judge me for having bare coat lapels: judge not, or be prepared for an earful.

To my Dad, who fought to protect Canada, and our freedoms: all my love, respect, and appreciation. I'm so proud of you. I always have been.

To the American war resisters - who are putting a human face on an illegal and immoral US invasion: all my love and support. You are the kind of people this world needs, and to those of you I've met: we're lucky to have you in Canada. On Remembrance Day, we should be remembering the horrors of war, present as much as past - and that means talking about your part in history. You give me hope for our future.