Flower fracas: White poppies refuse to die

Poppies GigCity Edmonton Remembrance DayThe red poppy is symbolic of the freedom that gives people the right to wear the white poppy – no matter how much it may annoy war veterans.

There’s more irony to this emotionally-charged story that won’t go away: Just try to buy a white “peace” poppy in Edmonton. You can’t. Short of ordering one from the UK (at the Peace Pledge Union), if you want to wear a white poppy in this town leading up to Remembrance Day on Monday, Nov. 11, you’re probably going to have to make it yourself. Just don’t expect a warm reception down at the Legion hall.

Earth’s General Store had been selling white poppies a few years ago, with profits donated to various peace groups, but was sent a cease and desist letter from the Royal Canadian Legion in 2006 because the red poppy is a registered trademark. It’s like busting Al Capone for tax evasion – considering how many veterans and their families consider the white poppy people guilty of more heinous crimes. And no one protects a registered trademark with cease and desists if it isn’t about money. The red poppies raised $14 million worth of donations in Canada last year, the money donated to individual veterans in need.

Michael Kalmanovitch, right, with the NDP's Linda Duncan

Michael Kalmanovitch, right, with MP Linda Duncan

Earth’s General Store owner and local activist Michael Kalmanovitch says he was going to fight the threatened legal action, and continued to sell the white poppies for a number of years, but in the end decided to drop it.

“We got all sorts of ugly messages on the phone, lots of e-mails saying how horrible we were,” he says. “Part of me goes, well, these people died for us to have the right to express opinion. Our opinion was that why do we need to revert to violence instead of trying to find peaceful means to avoid that? Can not we as an evolved society achieve peace without resorting to violence?”

It’s hard to imagine a symbol of peace arousing such ire – but it’s understandable. White poppies appear around the same time of year as red ones. There wouldn’t be any white poppies otherwise, and the natural assumption is that red represents war. Veterans would be quick to correct you.

“The groups that are agitating the wearing of the white poppy say that the red symbolizes war and the white symbolizes peace, and of course that’s not correct,” says Bill Maxwell, secretary of the poppy remembrance committee at the Royal Canadian Legion in Ottawa. “The red poppy symbolizes the sacrifice of the 117,000 Canadians that died for our freedom.”

There are other concerns, he says: That it detracts from the solemnity and true meaning of Remembrance Day, that it profits from the occasion, that it dishonours veterans. The very existence of the white flower continues to arouse strong reaction. Maxwell says he recently talked to one veteran’s widow “who was in tears over the assault on her memories.”

The issue came to a head – again – with a recent story in the Ottawa Sun about Rideau Institute students continuing to sport the peace poppy. Responding to the complaints (including from Maxwell), a student said, “No one has a monopoly over Remembrance Day.” In a follow-up story, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino called it “disrespectful.”

Red and White Poppy GigCity EdmontonKalmanovitch has put a lot of thought into this. He talks of the white poppy’s origin among pacifist groups in the 1920s, war widows, injured veterans, people who would later be accused of being Nazi sympathizers. He says for him that the white poppy doesn’t mean to avoid war “at all costs,” but to avoid it “where possible.” He says, “I have no problem with defense. If you attack me, I’m going to hurt you. But I’m going to talk to you before I do that.”

Kalmanovitch recently posted an essay on the store’s blog urging cooperation, hoping that the two warring poppy camps could put aside their differences and be “complimentary and mutually supportive.”

You could always wear both.