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Fighting over our dead: the poppy controversy

The following editorial was published in the Guelph Mercury, December 18, 2006.

Because I haven’t lost it yet, (my Remembrance Day poppy, I mean), I continue to wear it every day. Complete strangers have remarked on this in recent weeks. Standing at the cenotaph on November 11, I decided I would wear it all year. This resolve may not last, because poppies have a way of falling off. All of which makes the story of Joe Wilson the more interesting to me. 

Partly because I have a personal connection with 20th century history, and partly because I have written before about the plight of surviving World War II veterans, I’m having a bit of a tough time with the Royal Canadian Legion’s slap on the wrist of Joe Wilson and his poppy-bearing T-shirt campaign.

Actually, this was more than a slap. Lawyers were involved.

To catch you up, Joe Wilson is a Guelph entrepreneur who two years ago launched a line of D-Day wear which included the aforementioned forbidden poppy symbol. Since that time, he has raised $20,000 in donations toward providing a plaque for every soldier who fell at Juno Beach on June 6, 1944. Each memorial plaque costs $250. That leaves him only $65,000 and 13,000 T-shirts short.

Three hundred and forty Canadians died at Juno that day. Another 574 were wounded and 47 were taken prisoner. Wilson donates $5 on the sale of every shirt.

Does Wilson, somewhere in this notion he came up with, have a profit motive? Certainly, at least to the degree that everyone needs to eat and recover the cost of production. People are rarely able to devote their lives to a cause that pays them nothing.

Is there a government regulation protecting the image of the poppy from commercial abuse when said poppy is used in connection with remembrance? Right again.

But use and abuse are two different things. What, in this context, are we being protected from?

Well, from the personal spoils of systemic, ungoverned free enterprise, I suppose. So says the Royal Canadian Legion. In principle that’s fine. But reality says something else.

From a commercial standpoint, what we’re missing here is the concept of “cause marketing”. Many of us are separated daily from money we pay to good causes, and we usually want something back—whether that be from the OLG slots that pay a residual to the communities in which they operate, or the Princess Margaret Hospital Sweeps, which promise untold riches in exchange for a donation to cancer research.

But in the case of the humble poppy, the infringement enters deeply emotional territory. And at the same time, it is just plain turf.

Opposition to use of the poppy on a T-shirt defeats the opportunity to raise what in the end is really not a whole lot of money. It defeats the year-round opportunity to sustain awareness of sacrifice. And it defeats a connection to history for generations who never knew their grandfathers and grandmothers except through pictures, stories and a ceremony that takes place once a year.

I’ll tell you the mistake Wilson made. He didn’t recruit the Royal Canadian Legion as a partner to his cause before he began. He probably didn’t think where it would all lead.

If he had, and if the Legion were a partner by some definition in this endeavour today, I doubt we would be having this discussion.

I think we should all be encouraged to wear the poppy whenever we darn well please. I want to be able to buy a poppy when I lose the one I’m still wearing, even though I have a back up, which I will also lose in due course. And when I do, I seriously doubt I’ll be able to find another. They certainly won’t be on every street corner like they are in November. That’s why I protect the one I have, adjust it and reset it every time I get in or out of the car, every time I put on my coat.

Maybe if the Royal Canadian Legion sold poppies year round, this would all be moot. But that would require marketing. Maybe the Royal Canadian Legion thinks there is no market for poppies except in November.

Joe Wilson seems to be proving them wrong.

Royal Canadian Legion: Meet your new partner. Now maybe the two of you can go fight Ottawa together. The way the Feds are treating our veterans today, they could stand a little reminding themselves.

A recent editorial in this newspaper said it hoped that the Legion—if it fights Wilson on this—will be consistent and challenge anyone else who infringes on the poppy.

I think that’s just a sad way of looking at the world. What we should be doing instead is finding ways to enable the commemoration and recognition of our fathers and mothers, past and present. We need to acknowledge there are some compromises and costs in doing so, but let’s not make this about imperialism. History belongs to everyone with the reverence to show it respect. If we’re serious about the “poppy brand”, like-minded men and women should be able to work together in a cause that celebrates what we have become as a nation, rather than diminishing it.

©Garrett Klassen is president of Crunch! Communications in Elora, Ontario, Canada.


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