Ex­pos­ing the pol­i­tics of the poppy

Toronto Star - - OPINION - MARK BULGUTCH Mark Bulgutch is the for­mer se­nior ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of CBC News. He’s pro­duced nu­mer­ous news spe­cials on Re­mem­brance Day and on Canada’s wartime his­tory. He teaches jour­nal­ism at Ry­er­son Univer­sity. His lat­est book is That’s Why I’m a Jour

Ev­ery­one knows about Christ­mas creep and hates it. It’s the time of the year when stores be­gin putting up their dec­o­ra­tions and we’re bom­barded with sug­ges­tions about the per­fect gift we can buy to cel­e­brate the birth of Je­sus.

Once upon a time, the on­slaught of mer­ri­ment would be­gin in early De­cem­ber. Now we’re lucky to get past mid-Novem­ber be­fore the glad tid­ings are ev­ery­where.

It is fashionable to rail against Christ­mas creep, though it does no good.

It is not fashionable to rail against poppy creep, but here goes.

Re­mem­brance Day is Nov. 11. The most vis­i­ble way to show you care about the sac­ri­fice made by vet­er­ans of Canada’s wars is to buy and wear a poppy. A lot of Cana­di­ans do that. Mil­lions in fact. The money that is col­lected is used for im­por­tant work by the Royal Cana­dian Le­gion. So far, so good.

What I find ob­jec­tion­able is how the poppy seems to be used by some peo­ple to show their pa­tri­o­tism. It’s lit­er­ally a cheap trick. The av­er­age do­na­tion for a poppy is less than a dol­lar. In fact, the Le­gion says you can pick one up for free if you want to. So that’s the cost for show­ing ev­ery­one that you’re do­ing your part to re­mem­ber.

Politicians usu­ally start wear­ing pop­pies first. And if one politi­cian wears one, they all have to wear one for fear of be­ing called out for dis­re­spect­ing our vet­er­ans.

Then any­one who’s in the pub­lic eye pins on a poppy. Na­tional Hockey League coaches. TV broad­cast­ers. Ex­ec­u­tives of big cor­po­ra­tions. No one can take a chance that some­one else in their busi­ness will ap­pear more re­spect­ful than they do.

And all this hap­pens be­fore Hal­loween is over and the cal­en­dar turns to Novem­ber.

To be clear, there is noth­ing wrong with wear­ing a poppy. I’ve bought mine al­ready, but I won’t put it on un­til a week or so be­fore Re­mem­brance Day. I don’t have to advertise that I hon­our the more than 110,000 Cana­di­ans killed in our wars. I try to hon­our them every day. Qui­etly. You can too. There are more than 6,000 war me­mo­ri­als in Canada. There’s a very good chance you walk by one of them, per­haps even sev­eral of them, every day. Maybe you should stop once in a while. Read the in­scrip­tions. Re­mem­ber that most were erected af­ter the First World War, not by gov­ern­ments, but by com­mu­ni­ties get­ting to­gether to com­mem­o­rate what they had lost. Con­sider the pain each me­mo­rial rep­re­sents.

If you are a lit­tle more am­bi­tious, you can travel to places around the world that are, in some ways, more Cana­dian than your own neigh­bour­hood.

You can go to Vimy, France. There’s a mon­u­ment there you’ll never for­get. You may have seen pic­tures of it. You may have no­ticed it on the twenty dol­lar bills in your pocket. But un­til you’ve seen it, you have no idea. Its majesty and power will seize you at first glance. Get closer and you’ll see 11,285 names etched into the Vimy Me­mo­rial. They are Cana­di­ans who were killed in France in the First World War, but whose bod­ies were so shat­tered they have no graves. Pause. Think about that.

Or you can go to Nor­mandy, also in France. There’s a beach there where Cana­di­ans landed on D-Day.

“Landed,” though, is a far too gen­tle a word to de­scribe what hap­pened. Walk along the sand. Try to imag­ine what it was like to run up the beach with ma­chine gun and mor­tar fire try­ing to kill you. Think of the ter­ri­ble noise and the sheer ter­ror.

Or you can go to the ceme­ter­ies. There are a lot of them. Too many of them. They’re in France, Bel­gium, Hol­land, Italy, Hong Kong, South Korea and a few more places. Each and every one is com­pletely over­whelm­ing. You’ll see row af­ter row af­ter row of head­stones. And you’ll see the maple leaf carved into each marker. You will never feel closer to peo­ple you never knew.

Wear­ing a poppy is a good start. But if it’s just some­thing you do be­cause ev­ery­one else is do­ing it, or be­cause it would be bad for your im­age if you don’t do it, then it doesn’t mat­ter how early you put it on.

Poppy creep won’t dis­guise the hol­low­ness of the ges­ture.

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