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After 100 years, the poppy is more than just a reminder of Canadian history


For Remembrance Day, Grade 3 students at Leonardo DaVinci Academy in Montreal, Que., had a special assignment.

They were asked to create and decorate their own poppy, bearing words they think most represent the symbol’s meaning.

“I wrote ‘brave soldiers’ because all the soldiers were brave to go to war,” said student Lily Bedard.

The kids then brought their creations together to create a collective mosaic that forms a larger flower.

“I hope there is never another war because it’s a lot of damage and a lot of people died,” said student Vincent Mollica.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, but for some Canadians, it’s much more than just a reminder of the past.

‘Between the crosses, row on row’

It was a McGill medical lecturer and surgeon, John McCrae, who inspired the poppy’s place in history.

He was a lieutenant-colonel serving as a medical officer in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the spring of 1915 when he wrote his famous poem.

John McCrae, Bonfire and Bonneau, Dec, 1917. (Guelph Museums)

McCrae, who was born in Guelph, Ont., crafted the piece in Belgium following the death of a friend and fellow soldier at the second battle of Ypres.

That December, the poem appeared in the British magazine Punch. Within a matter of weeks, In Flanders Fields was being reprinted and featured at public rallies across Britain.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow. Between the crosses, row on row,” he wrote as the First World War entered its 11th month.

Poppies grew naturally on battlefields and on graves.

Raising money with poppies 

After the war, a French woman, Anna Guérin, was inspired by McCrae’s poem. She sold cloth poppies to raise money for widows and orphans.

In 1921, she convinced the Great War Veterans Association, the group that would eventually become the Royal Canadian Legion, to embrace the flower as its symbol of remembrance.

Lily Bedard, Grade 3 student at Leonardo DaVinci Academy in Montreal, Que., says soldiers were brave to go to war. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

The original fabric poppy had a stem and resembled a dried flower. It was a bit different than today’s plastic version, explained Kenneth Ouellet, president of the Royal Canadian Legion Quebec Provincial Command.

“It’s a very strong symbol of remembrance,” said Ouellet, describing it as a peaceful symbol that pays respect to those who have served, those who have died at war and those who are serving now.

The legion has a copyright on the flower’s design, and branches across Canada will distribute about 20 million poppies this year. All donations will go directly to support veterans and their families.

“The money is used for assisting the veterans themselves who have fallen through the cracks with Veterans Affairs Canada,” said Jim Howard, poppy fund manager in Vancouver, B.C.

Anna Guérin was inspired by John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields, when she began making and selling poppies to raise funds for widows and orphans. (Getty Images)

Ouellet says the legion has adapted not only to the pandemic, but to modern times as it works to raise funds through the poppy campaign. Poppies can be ordered through the legion’s website, and people can even buy virtual flowers instead.

For the 100th anniversary, Howard said the legion has also come out with a special pin that can be purchased at its branches across the province.

Ouellet encouraged Canadians to be generous when getting their own poppy this year.

The importance of peace

Sgt. Samer Kanso moved to Canada from Lebanon when he was just a boy, and joined the military in 2003. He was attracted to the physical challenge, he said, but also the opportunity to serve the country that took him and his family in when he was young.

Among his duties, he spent about nine months in Afghanistan training the local military and escorting convoys.

For Sgt. Samer Kanso, the poppy reminds of the importance of peace, to never repeat what happened in the First and Second World Wars. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

“It wasn’t an easy place, but I think we had a reason to be there and it was to help out,” said Kanso, who now lives in Laval, Que.

He sees Remembrance Day and the poppy as a reminder of the importance of peace — to never repeat what happened in the First and Second World War, he said.

After 100 years, Kanso said the poppy remains an important symbol.

“I don’t think this is something that could fade away because it has shaped a lot of today’s world,” he said. “It’s important to remember your past as you look toward the future.”

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