Commentary  Rethinking Remembrance Day

Gaps in the memory of Canadian military history

Remembrance Day, defined by John McCrae’s words and symbol, the Scarlet Poppy, calls us to ‘take up the quarrel.’ But whose quarrel? The poem’s romanticism blinds. Its retelling forgets. The struggles and victories of our ancestors, the blood they bled, the pain they felt, the courage they had, are belittled in the marches of jingoism. Our young men and women put their lives and families on the line in the belief of a possible better world. Is this the best we can give them?

Broke and broken men came back from World War I with hopes of a better Canada. Today we are told they fought for democracy and liberty, free speech, and so forth. They gave their bodies for the empire. But the empire gave them nothing. Injured men had to protest for pensions, widows and orphans starved, workers found meagre wages and closed factory doors. Veterans of the war took to the streets en masse; do we remember their march down Portage Avenue during the Winnipeg General Strike? Our veterans were marked as Bolsheviks, their papers shut down, the freedom of speech they fought for taken away.

Or what about the women? Forced into factories to survive, on average getting paid a third of what men were, they kept the war effort moving every step of the way. Work safety was relaxed, thousands lost limbs or were exposed to toxic materials. Hard-fought strikes were crushed or won. Suffrage was given and taken away. No women meant no war, yet their stories are forgotten.

Then came the Spanish Civil War. You may not know about it, because the Legion never built those brave veterans cenotaphs or monuments. They are not spoken about on Remembrance Day. Their dreams for a better world, their dedication, and their sacrifices are forgotten. The Mackenzie-Papineau battalion fought Hitler’s fascism on the front lines of Spain. Among their ranks was Norman Bethune, who developed blood transfusion on the field. These heroes were our finest, and they deserve to be remembered.

We remember World War II in similar shades of gallantry as World War I. Canadians, Brits, and Americans wanted to destroy fascism – but our leaders were playing empire. They wanted to prolong the war, to let Soviet soldiers be murdered by the millions in combat with the Germans. To appease the impatient Soviets, longing to bring home the troops, a ploy was set. Sacrifice thousands of troops but don’t open a front, to give the impression of effort. The generals must have known the beach was made of small rocks: tanks became stuck, men tripped, most died. The Battle of Dieppe was lost before it ever began. The generals and politicians would only open the Western Front, despite most Canadians’ best intentions, when the Eastern Front had been won by our Soviet Allies. We landed in 1944, five long years after we declared war.

We need to challenge conservative complacency when thinking about the past. Many times, when we look at the past, we mistake our values for facts, our ambitions for reality, the truth for lies. The true act of remembrance criticizes everything. It searches deeply and begs difficult questions of our allegiances and who we are as a nation. Our veterans, living and gone, deserve it.

White Poppies are meant to make us stop and rethink what war means: the civilian tolls, the imperialist legacies placing us against our friends and family who moved beside us from across the world. We know McCrae wrote in the style of Rudyard Kipling, a man who advocated subjugating the Philippines, pillaging India, and colonizing Africa. For these white poets, and many, World War I was an imperialist war, meant to maintain the last bloody vestiges of empire. Our foes were not much different than ourselves. Was this our quarrel?

During World War I, while most Canadians were suffering in poverty or in the trenches, an elite few made millions off the war effort. Can we simultaneously remember their sacrifices abroad and the pain at home and the injustices around the world? When our veterans returned home in 1919, they fought for redistributive taxes and created the beginnings of the welfare state and a strong union movement. When fascist imperialism swept Europe many took up the call, and fought for a better world. Lest we forget.

Jimmy Gutman is a U3 Canadian Studies and History student. To get in touch, email