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From battlefields to buttonholes, the poppy is a powerful symbol of remembrance

A poppy adorns a hat at the National War Memorial on Thursday October 30, 2014 in Ottawa.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
November 09, 2014 - 7:32 PM

They've gone from the battlefields of the First World War to the buttonholes of thousands around the world.

Pinning small red and black poppies onto clothing in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day may be a simple gesture, but it's one that carries great significance.

"It's a symbol of the men and women who wore the uniform, who paid the supreme sacrifice throughout Canada's history and also a symbol of respect for the men and women who are still serving," said Tom Eagles, Dominion President of the Royal Canadian Legion.

"I think Canadians have a deep respect for the people who've worn the uniform over the years...and they pay the respects during the remembrance period by wearing a poppy."

The presence of the poppy in the fields where soldiers died had been observed as early as the 19th Century after the Napoleonic Wars, noted Eagles, but it was only a few years after the publication of Canadian Lt.-Col. John McCrae's 1915 poem "In Flanders Fields" that the flower became entrenched as a symbol of remembrance.

McCrae's text — which begins and ends with references to the poppies in battlefields in the Flanders region in Belgium — inspired an American woman named Moina Michael in the last year of the war to wear a red poppy as an emblem of respect and remembrance for those who died in the First World War.

She then led a campaign to have the American Legion recognize the poppy as the official symbol of remembrance in 1920.

Meanwhile, Anne Guerin, a French woman who was inspired by Michael's example and McCrae's poem, began selling cloth versions of the poppy through her organization — the American and French Children's League — to help raise money for war-torn areas in Europe.

Guerin then travelled to Britain and Canada in 1921 and convinced the British Legion and the Canadian Great War Veterans Association, which was a predecessor of the Royal Canadian Legion, to adopt the poppy as their symbol of remembrance. The flower was adopted as a symbol of remembrance in Australia that year as well.

While the first artificial poppies came to Canada from Guerin's organization in France, by 1922, they were made locally at "Vetcraft" shops staffed by disabled soldiers which were run by Veterans Affairs Canada.

Production of the poppies has since shifted to a company in Ottawa that manufactures them year round for the Royal Canadian Legion, which was granted trademark copyright of the poppy symbol in Canada in 1948.

The veterans organization is now responsible for making poppies available at thousands of locations across the country every year from the last Friday in October until Remembrance Day on Nov. 11.

"It's very significant and has been for a long time," Eagles said of the poppy, noting that the Legion does not sell the poppy pins as some other countries do.

"We use it solely for remembrance...Anybody can have a poppy, if you want to drop in a donation, so be it, but if you don't have the funds for the donation, you can still have the poppy."

So far, 19 million poppies have been distributed this year in the lead-up to Remembrance Day — a new record for the Legion, said spokesman Bill Maxwell, who heads the poppy campaign. That's a million more than last year, Maxwell said.

He believes the recent killings of two soldiers, one in Ottawa and another near Montreal, have spurred demand for the pins, as have the anniversaries of the First and Second World Wars.

"There's a desire by Canadians to wear the poppy with respect and commemoration," he said.

While the poppy conjures up emotions related to the wars of the past and present, there is also a positive element to the popular symbol.

"Symbolically it's simple — red is the colour of the martyr, the colour of the wounded, is directly associated with casualty and loss," said Sean Fraser, director of heritage programs at the Ontario Heritage Trust. "But it's also a flower ... There's this element of hope that I think is embodied in the poppy, yes it's loss and it's horrific loss, but it's also the future."

Some 18 million poppies were distributed across Canada last year, raising $14.5 million dollars which went to veterans and their families, according to the Royal Canadian Legion.

— With a file from Paola Loriggio.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

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