The Humble Poppy

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An internal memo was leaked from Air Canada that notified employees to refrain from wearing the poppy should they find themselves in an Air Canada uniform. Hoping this to be an early 2017 April Fool’s joke, I checked multiple sources. It is no joke.

In the Western World, the poppy symbolizes a great deal more than Canada’s Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae would have imagined in 1917 as he set pen to paper and unleashed his tormented soul in his most-celebrated work, In Flanders Fields.

McCrae, already having served the British Monarchy (Canada then a Dominion of the Empire) in the South African Boer War, felt compelled to answer the call of duty in the First World War. He spent much of the war tending to the sick and dying as a surgeon along the Western Front, particularly in Ypres, Belgium, an area traditionally known as Flanders. He witnessed, firsthand, and then tried – most times unsuccessfully – to repair the vicious wounds humans inflicted on one another with fists, shovels, bayonets, barbed wire, bombs from above, grenades from below, machine guns, and gas. If disillusionment hadn’t already set in about the realities of modern warfare, it certainly did when McCrae’s close friend was killed in yet another offensive in an unending war of attrition.

Belgium witnessed some of the most savage brutality of the war, the earth left scarred almost as deeply as the souls of the men who fought it. And it was in the sullen skies over Belgium that the British Royal Flying Corps first scouted enemy positions, then engaged in dog fights with enemy combatants until planes were mechanized enough for human slaughter. Pilots now dropped bombs and armaments from great heights upon frightened, scurrying soldiers; men seeking cover in coverless trenches, hoping this pallid, miserable place would not become their makeshift grave. They, the unknown soldiers, would count themselves lucky to have their final resting place marked with a nondescript wooden cross.

And far above their readied graves, soldiers watched – even bet – on their flying aces to shoot down the enemy, maybe even the Red Baron: a victory to be relished amidst the long, monotonous moments between enemy bombardments; a loss to punctuate the anguish and hardship. And the air was no safe haven, either. Casualties were incredibly high among pilots, particularly for the RFC, where the average career of a pilot was better counted in days, not months or years.

To McCrae, the poppies that somehow still grew in scorched earth symbolized that amid the countless deaths, life would go on; that despite the callous calamity, the righteous would persevere; that even in war, momentary peace was attainable; that his own lasting despair could be overcome by one powerful, enduring emotion. Hope.

One hundred years after the supposed “war to end all wars,” a national airliner(!!) attempted to cleanse their workplace of the small, beautiful, red poppy that honours both the fighting and the fallen soldier. Air Canada’s rationale doesn’t matter; the fact that it took a rebellious outcry from employees and their union for management to see the errors in its ways – that they had to fight for the right to pin a poppy to the lapel of their uniform – borders on the unconscionable.

McCrae’s poppy remains an emotive symbol: thousands still fight, and millions more have since died, to keep his torch alight amidst the unending brutality we inflict upon one another. The poppy is sacrifice, freedom, democracy, honour, humility, blood, heroism, strength, loss, and many other unuttered personal beliefs and atonements. Collectively, however, we are bound to the humble poppy by hope: hope for our family and friends still serving; hope for peace; hope that, one day, war will be remembered as belonging only to the uncivilized.

Lest we forget.

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