Vancouver Peace Poppies co-founder Teresa Gagné at the White Poppy Memorial in 2018. (photo by Diane Donaldson)
A local group is hoping to broaden the scope of Remembrance Day as more than an occasion to honour the brave men and women who have died while serving for their country. Through the distribution of white poppies, the Vancouver Peace Poppies (VPP) movement strives to extend the focus on Nov. 11 to all those who have suffered as a result of military conflicts.
Teresa Gagné, who co-founded VPP with Denis Laplante in 2008, stresses that the group intends no disrespect towards soldiers. Instead, they wish to bring more awareness to the toll warfare has on the whole population, whether it be the loss of life or other trauma experienced. Beyond representing the victims of war, civilian and military, the white poppy, according to VPP, also challenges the beliefs, values and institutions that create the view that war is unavoidable.
“I have always had respect and sympathy for veterans, who put their life, health and family on the line to serve,” Gagné said. “I believe they deserve recognition and support, but, for years, I was uncomfortable wearing a red poppy, because of the undercurrent of promotion and recruitment for present and future wars that I detect in many public events around the topic of supporting veterans. The white poppy attracts questions, and gives me a chance to explain the nuances of my support.”
A 2016 study by Alexandre Marc, a specialist in conflict and violence for the World Bank, brought to light the overwhelmingly disproportionate number of casualties among non-combatants as opposed to combatants in recent decades. According to some reports, civilians constitute 90% of wartime fatalities, a ratio that has existed since the mid-1950s.
What’s more, Marc’s research points out that global poverty is increasingly concentrated in countries affected by violence and that prolonged conflict keeps countries poor.
Gagné and Laplante have been active in the peace movement since their teens. Their 2008 launch of VPP began by distributing handmade white poppies as a way to promote discussion and a broader focus for Remembrance Day. The following year, while still a “kitchen table” operation, they imported 500 cloth poppies from Britain. VPP now sends out more than 5,000 poppies across Canada annually.
Since 2016, VPP has partnered with the B.C. Humanist Association to host Let Peace Be Their Memorial, an annual Remembrance Day wreath-laying ceremony that includes peace songs, short presentations and poetry. This year, the Multifaith Action Society is also a co-host. The event poster highlights, “The time and location of the ceremony has been chosen to avoid any appearance of competition with, or disrespect for, veteran-focused events.”
As in previous years, this year’s ceremony at Seaforth Peace Park on Nov. 11, 2:30 p.m., will include a special wreath laid in memory of Holocaust victims.
Two members of the Vancouver Jewish community, Marcy Cohen and Gyda Chud, are engaged in the local movement. In 2017, Cohen attended her first Let Peace Be Their Memorial and then sought to get others in the community involved.
“I was far more affected emotionally than I anticipated,” said Cohen of the occasion.
After learning of the history, values and focus of VPP, Chud recently joined the committee, and seeks to profile their work in the larger Jewish community. She represented Pacific Immigrant Resource Society (PIRS), a local refugee service group, in laying the refugee wreath in 2017 and 2018.
“The memorial serves as a powerful and compelling call to action for everything we can and must do to create a more peaceful world,” said Chud.
Last year’s Holocaust wreath was laid by Henry Grayman and Deborah Ross-Grayman, both children of Holocaust survivors. Having each experienced the intergenerational effects of trauma, the couple, both therapists, are facilitators for the Second Generation Group, an organization in Vancouver comprised of children of Holocaust survivors sharing their experiences among peers.
The people laying the Holocaust wreath at this year’s Let Peace Be Their Memorial have yet to be announced.
The red poppy widely worn today first appeared in 1921 on what was then called Armistice Day. In 1926, the No More War Movement, a British pacifist organization, came up with the idea for the white poppy and, in 1933, the Co-Operative Women’s Guild in the United Kingdom sold the first white poppies as a means of remembering that women had lost husbands, sons and fathers during wartime.
The wreaths that Vancouver Peace Poppies and other groups make, a mix of white and red poppies, highlight the amount of civilian suffering. VPP also distributes white poppies in schools in an effort to teach students that wars mostly kill non-military people, pollute the environment and send the message that violence as a means to settle disputes, even for adults, is acceptable.
VPP hands out its poppies by donation to increase awareness of its cause and not as a fundraiser. Poppies cost $1.25 each, of which 95 cents goes to the Peace Pledge Union, a pacifist organization based in London, England, which, since 1934, has advocated for nonviolent solutions to global problems. A $1 or $2 donation allows VPP to provide subsidized poppies for classroom use and free poppies to disadvantaged groups.
For poppies and more information, visit peacepoppies.ca or call 604-437-4453.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.