On Saturday, hockey commentator Don Cherry denounced “you people that come here” for, as he saw it, not wearing poppies around Remembrance Day.
He later told Global News he should have said “everybody” rather than “you people” and was trying to point out that fewer people seem to be wearing poppies.
But despite what Cherry thinks, poppies, according to the Royal Canadian Legion, are still popular. The non-profit group that represents Canadian veterans distributes about 20 million poppies across Canada every year and brings in about a dollar each in donations, the organization says.
“The trend is steady,” says Legion spokesperson Nujma Bond.
“It fluctuates a little bit, but that’s how it’s been over the past few years.”
Distributing 20 million poppies across the country happens despite an aging and shrinking membership.
“We’ve been doing this for many years, so we have it down to a science,” Bond says. “It just takes a lot of coordination.”
The Legion’s membership has been falling steadily, from almost half a million in 1998 to 285,000 in 2015. In 2015, 4,450 members were known to the organization to have died, and membership overall fell by over 13,000.
“Membership keeps me up at night,” national president Tom Eagles told a Legion convention in 2016. “Our membership numbers have been declining since 1986 and we must accept the fact that there is no silver bullet that can fix this issue.”
(Membership in the Legion is open to any adult citizen of Canada or an allied country; members don’t have to be veterans.)
Money from poppy sales goes to a wide range of veterans’ programs across the country. Some are small and local, while others are more ambitious in scale.
One is a six-day retreat program on a farm in Perth, Ont. run by Manuela Jouannou, a local doctor.
Legion funding is “incredibly helpful,” she says. “It allows us to actually put money right to where individuals are seeing the benefit.”
The retreat serves veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and ‘moral injury,’ or someone having a sense that they have acted in ways that strongly go against their conscience. Moral injury, she says, often seems to cause more suffering than PTSD.
“I think as civilians, we have a debt, we have a duty, we have a moral obligation to step up and take care of her folks, because, you know, even though sometimes people will say, well, you signed up for this, you know, you signed on the dotted line,” she says. “And what did you expect?
“Well, you know, very often what you find that you are in for is more than what you bargained for, and you really had no idea what the actual cost of service would be.”
In 2018, the city of Toronto said that 11 per cent of the city’s outdoor homeless population reported having served in the military in some way. One per cent of Toronto’s overall homeless population, or about 90 people, reported military service outside Canada.
In 2010, the Legion started a program in Toronto to find and help homeless veterans, which has since spread to several other provinces.
“It’s very varied in terms of the different projects that we support,” Bond says. “There are 1,400 branches, and all of them will be supporting projects and initiatives that make sense for their communities.”
“We are losing our more senior veterans, and the younger veterans today do have different interests, they are coming from different scenarios,” she says. “Sometimes they are coming back more injured in terms of the mental health realm than maybe in the past, or maybe it’s the same degree but we’re seeing and hearing more about it.”
Ottawa-area Second World War veteran Art Boudreau, who distributes poppies, says it’s very common in his experience for recent immigrants to ask for them.
“I’ve been watching Don for years, and he’s very outspoken,” says Boudreau, who is 99.
“But what he said there was a bit over the hill. It was just a bit too much. I’ve pinned poppies on people from other countries. What he said is it’s not really true. I wouldn’t have said anything like that. “