This year, when you pin on a poppy for Remembrance Day, take a few minutes to consider what the poppy means to you and to many Canadians. Over the years it has become a meaningful symbol of remembrance of those who served our country, and especially of those who died in conflict. Other Commonwealth countries also use the red poppy as an emblem.
This flower emerged as a symbol of remembrance during the First World War, partly because of the now-famous poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician who served as a medical officer during that war. It is usually said that McCrae wrote the poem on May 3, 1915, the day after his friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed in the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium. Like those of many of the dead soldiers, his friend’s grave was a makeshift one, in a cemetery where wild poppies were growing. McCrae apparently wrote the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance. It is said that he wasn’t satisfied with what he had written, but that others found it after he had discarded it, and sent it to a London magazine where it was published later the same year.
The common poppy has been a symbol of death and rebirth for a long time. To many, today, it is worn not just to remember those who died in the wars, but also to honour those who still serve to protect us now. To others, it is a symbol of the freedom for which so many died.
The poppy was first adopted as a symbol by Canada in 1921. Originally the artificial ones were made by disabled veterans, with the profits used to supplement their income. This lasted until 1996 when Veterans Affairs Canada decided it could no longer maintain the business. Instead, the Royal Canadian Legion took it over and hired a private contractor, but any profits from the campaign are still used to support services for veterans and their families. Many millions of poppies are made and distributed each year, across Canada and overseas. They are usually given out free, although a voluntary donation is appreciated.
In the beginning, the poppies were made with a black centre. Then, for a number of years, the centre was changed to green, before being changed back to black — to reflect more closely the colours of the variety of poppies that grow in Flanders.
Some Canadians have begun using a small Canadian flag pin in the centre to fasten the poppy, attaching it more securely to clothing. The Canadian Legion actually prefers that no other pin be used to attach it, saying, “The poppy is the sacred symbol of remembrance and should not be defaced in any way.”
Over the years, the poppy symbol has been used on a variety of Canadian coins and stamps. The world’s first coloured circulation coin was a 25-cent piece issued by the Royal Canadian Mint in 2004. Since then, others with colour have also been issued, including a 25-cent circulation coin with two red poppies and a soldier on it; a Flanders Field limited issue coin set issued in 2015; and a poppy wreath on a Remembrance Day coin that came out in 2016. The Canadian stamps include a special set of five stamps with the “In Flanders Field” poem and a poppy, that was issued in 2015. Coin or stamp collectors can still buy many of these commemorative items.