As Canadians across the country gathered around local cenotaphs to pay tribute to those who died in past and present wars today, we continue to struggle with the meaning of Remembrance Day. Is this a day to celebrate Canadian military achievement or a day to mourn the tragedy of human warfare and strive for lasting peace? This year’s controversy over the white poppy peace movement between the Canadian Legion and peace activists underlines the ongoing competition over the meaning of this day.
That tension between militarism and anti-war sentiment, of course, was evident even in the first Armistice Day in 1919 in Canada. What seems clear, however, was that as much as some Canadians celebrated the cessation of armed conflict in 1918 as a victory for democracy and civilization, the overriding sentiment by 1919 was one of a desire to establish a lasting peace. The war was fought not for freedom, it seemed, but freedom from war.
Editorials from Canadian newspapers on the first Armistice Day in 1919 reveal a sense of relief and appreciation for the return to peace and the end of wartime suffering. The Globe for instance noted that the “world is full of anxieties and perplexities; the reactions of the war have left many problems. But would it not be a terrible and fearful world if the struggle was still going on?” The paper called upon Canadians to remember the soldiers who died to achieve the peace. The pages of the Toronto World reminded readers that “the cessation continues, but we are far from peace.” The Montreal Gazette was equally aware of the continued trouble in Europe following the first year after the armistice, but found consolation in the belief that “the end of the year finds the warring nations resolutely facing the future, striving to obliterate the ugly scare of war and seeking a path to the permanent peace for which so full a price was paid.” While Canada certainly suffered its fair share of jingoism and militarism in the early years of Armistice Day, there was from the beginning a longing for peace as a major theme in Canada’s day of remembrance.
Whether we wear white poppies or red, this is a day to honour the fallen and remind ourselves that there are no just wars. This is not a day to celebrate war. It is a day to remember the horrors, crimes, and the governments responsible for our mourning, lest we forget.