Why white poppies — meant to be a symbol of peace — are so controversial

White poppies are growing in popularity in the U.K. Will the trend catch on in Canada?. Tony Margiocchi/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

For years, the red poppy has been the primary symbol for those honouring war veterans on Remembrance Day and beyond.

But there has been growing support in the United Kingdom for a white poppy to be worn — something that advocates say “broadens” the conversation around war.

Thousands of white poppies were worn across the U.K. last year, with more workplaces and schools offering the pins.

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Notably, the British chapter of the international organization St. John Ambulance announced this year it will allow volunteers and workers to wear white poppies.

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Across the ocean, some advocacy organizations are urging that Canadians don white poppies, too.

Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (VOW Peace) is one of those organizations. But there are several others doing the same coast to coast.

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What exactly do white poppies stand for?

Lyn Adamson, who is the national co-chair of the women’s group, told Global News that white poppies are slowly growing in popularity in Canada. About 1,200 of the pale, homemade flowers were distributed in 2016 in advance of Remembrance Day.

She explained that they are worn to acknowledge that many civilians are also killed in war.

“Red poppies are generally for the veterans, white poppy is recognizing that in fact the majority of deaths in war are civilians,” she said.

“It’s broadening it out to be more inclusive of all of the victims of war.”

She explained another purpose of white poppies is emphasizing that peace is always the better avenue.

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“It is to express our commitment to work for peace, which would protect the lives of people in the future whether they are in the military or civilians. What we want is a peaceful future.”

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Peace Poppies, a Vancouver-based group that advocates for Canadians to wear the white symbols, explains on its website that they also encompass the environmental devastation wars can cause, and “reject war as a tool for social change.”

While the history of the red poppy can be traced back to the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century, it was first adopted as a symbol of remembrance in Canada in 1921, six years after Lt.-Col. John McCrae of Guelph, Ont., wrote about the blood-red flowers that grew over battlefields in his poem, In Flanders Fields.

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The white poppy emerged as a symbol of peace in 1933 when the Women’s Co-operative Guild in Britain was searching for a way to show their members were against war and for non-violence.

Adamson explained that Canadians may find one of her organization’s members — or other similar groups — handing out white poppies in public spaces in the coming days.

Peace Poppies’ website adds that Canadians who want to wear a white poppy can order them online or make their own.

Controversy over white poppies

One group you won’t see handing out white poppies is the Royal Canadian Legion.

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The organization, which oversees the distribution of red poppies in Canada, declined to comment on white poppies in a statement to Global News.

Instead, the email statement focused on the red poppy, which it described as an “all-encompassing remembrance symbol.”

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The organization, which represents 275,000 veterans and distributes millions of red poppies every November, has been much more outspoken on the issue in the past.

The legion has called the white flowers — some with the word “peace” appearing in the centre — an insult to veterans and a possible copyright violation because the legion owns the trademark on the poppy.

In 2010, the legion threatened to launch a lawsuit to stop the alternative poppy drive.

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That has prompted other groups to be hesitant in adopting the peace symbol.

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In a statement to Global News, the Canadian chapter of St. John Ambulance said it won’t follow the lead of its British counterpart in allowing the white poppy.

“We would not authorize the wearing of the white poppy until it is approved to wear on uniforms by Canadian Forces,” the organization’s CEO, Jerry Rankin, said.

“We continue to encourage our members to wear the red poppy as an outward sign of our respect and support for the brave men and women that serve, and have served, our country.”

Are white poppies disrespectful?

Adamson explained that VOW Peace reached out to the Royal Canadian Legion to sort out the disagreement years ago, but it didn’t work out.

“We thought we could work together, because honestly for everyone, preventing future wars should be a common element,” she said.

She noted though that the white poppy is not meant to replace the red poppy — nor is it meant to be disrespectful.

“It’s not meant to be disrespectful at all. Many people wear both the red and white poppies together. It’s all about how we have a future that’s good for our kids.”

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— With files from the Canadian Press

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