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COMMENTARY: Canadians should embrace the poppy — for the right reasons

It seems difficult to get through a Remembrance Day in Canada without some controversy or outrage — typically involving poppies.

There’s certainly a positive side to it all. The reason why Canadians get offended at the idea of poppies being shunned or rejected (or usurped) is that we as a country care very deeply about this symbol and what it represents.

Perhaps, then, we could avoid at least some of the outrage and controversy if we acknowledge that the poppy and Remembrance Day itself are not in imminent peril. Quite the opposite, in fact.

As it turned out, the Great Poppy Controversy of 2020 was over almost as soon as it began. Early Friday it emerged that Whole Foods — a grocery retailer with 14 locations across Canada — had adopted a new uniform policy that meant employees would be banned from wearing a poppy.

The reaction was fast and furious.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford called the policy “disgusting and disgraceful,” and even pledged to bring in legislation to prevent employers from banning their employees from wearing poppies.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it a “silly mistake” on the company’s part. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole remarked that, “the sacrifice of Canadians in the past provides the freedom for a U.S. grocery chain to be stupid today.”

The House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion to condemn Whole Foods and their policy and unanimously adopted a separate resolution to call the company’s CEO before the veterans affairs committee. It’s rare to see unanimous agreement — let alone unanimous outrage — from Canada’s major national political parties.

Whatever tone deafness was there on the part of Whole Foods quickly evaporated. By early Friday afternoon, Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay reported that he had spoken with the CEO and that, in fact, the company would now allow employees to wear poppies if they so choose.

If there was a silver lining to the whole affair it was the opportunity to shed some light on the pandemic-related challenges facing this year’s poppy campaign.

So while Whole Foods has now done what the vast majority of Canadians surely agree is the right thing, we should be careful about declaring victory anytime anyone is shamed into such a decision.

Yes, it was fair and understandable for people to be upset or troubled by Whole Foods and its uniform policy. But whether it’s a company or an individual, the embrace or the wearing of the poppy should be a heartfelt gesture of support for the contribution of Canada’s veterans and not an empty gesture aimed at simply avoiding public shame or condemnation.

Ultimately, Canadians are free to not wear a poppy, just as they are free to be indifferent to Remembrance Day itself. As much as the rest of us might be offended by that, we should want people to care for the right reasons.

If we want the appreciation of Remembrance Day to carry over into future generations, we need more than just peer pressure and public shaming.

The good news here is that Canadians do care and they do understand the importance of all of this.

A survey released in November of last year showed that the number of Canadians planning to mark Remembrance Day was up two percentage points from 2018 and 12 points from 2017. Furthermore, a whopping 85 per cent of respondents said they’d be wearing a poppy in the lead-up to Remembrance Day — again, a two-point increase from the year before and an eight-point increase from 2017.

These are encouraging trends. It’s less likely that controversy and outrage is driving that trend, but rather that a focus on awareness and education has created the conditions for us to be offended at perceived slights of Remembrance Day or the poppy.

It speaks well of Canadians that we are largely quite passionate about honouring our veterans. That passion is strong enough to overcome the occasional manifestation of ignorance or indifference.

Rob Breakenridge is host of ‘Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge’ on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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