Proud to wear a white poppy on Remembrance Day
How, in a city like Toronto that bursts with immigrants, can we not hold all war victims in our thoughts during brief minute of silent reflection?
I was invited to tea to talk about peace.
Metta Spencer answers the door of her North York apartment, wearing a white poppy.
“I wear it to remember everyone who was a victim of war — not just the soldiers, and not just the soldiers on our side, but all the people who continue to be victims of war,” explains Spencer. “I feel real sorrow for the killer and the killed.”
Spencer is a retired sociology professor from University of Toronto. She started the peace and conflict studies program at the Mississauga campus. She also started Peace Magazine, which she still edits, 29 years later.
She settles into a chair in her living room next to Phyllis Creighton.
Creighton wears two poppies — one on each lapel. One is red, the other is white.
Her father was a serviceman in the First World War. He fought in the Battle of Passchendaele. His stories of horses being shot out from under soldiers and the horrors of gas attacks haunted her childhood.
“He signed up like all the young men who grew up in disciplined Edwardian homes — out of loyalty to friends and the crown … But if I look honestly, I see they didn’t go out in service to the country. They went out to kill,” says Creighton, a retired editor of theDictionary of Canadian Biography and an active member of a half-dozen peace organizations. “I think war is stupid.”
We’ve marked Remembrance Day with red poppies since the 1920s. They were inspired by Lt.-Col. John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields.”
We wear them to remember our dead soldiers, who “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow. Loved and were loved.”
The next verse of McCrae’s poem, though, asks us to “take up our quarrel with the foe.”
That’s the sticky point.
Many British women in 1934 saw that things were heading that way. They were mothers, sisters and widows of broken and killed soldiers. They intimately knew the tragedies of war and didn’t want to see them repeated. So, they produced the white poppy to wear on Remembrance Day. It is a symbol of peace.
Last year, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino called the white poppies “offensive” and disrespectful to veterans.
But how can we remember our fallen soldiers without longing for peace? And how, in a city like Toronto that bursts with immigrants, can we not hold all war victims in our thoughts during that brief minute of silent reflection?
The women offer a sobering statistic: Around 90 per cent of war victims today are civilians.
Creighton was 15 on Aug. 6, 1945, when an American plane dropped the first of two atomic bombs on Japan. “I was aghast. I thought, ‘That’s the end of war. We can’t do this.’ But everyone was celebrating,” she says.
She’s been to Hiroshima twice since then. Both times, she gathered with 50,000 people in Peace Square. “Each person puts a lantern into the river and watches it go out to sea. Every one has a memory of someone who died and a prayer for their souls to be at peace and to never again have such a war,” she says. “Never again, that’s my profound wish.”
Spencer was in New York City in 1982, marching with 1 million people for peace. “There were hibakusha women on the side of the road,” she says. Hibakusha translates from Japanese to “explosion-affected people.” “I ran over and hugged one. We both cried.”
Those are two memories I will hold now on Remembrance Day.
The women, now in their 80s, show no sign of slowing. Spencer will spend Tuesday interviewing a Ukrainian peace activist for her magazine; Creighton will deliver a peace talk in church.
They were both recognized this past weekend with awards by Voice of Women, a woman’s peace organization that was inspired in 1960 by Toronto Star columnist Lotta Dempsey.
So, there is some wonderful symmetry when they pin a white poppy on my lapel.
I wear it proudly.
Catherine Porter is a Star columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com