Opinion, The Woman Behind Our Poppy

At a time when the role of women in Canada’s military is undergoing almost daily scrutiny and public discussion, it is rather compelling that we are on the cusp of the 100th anniversary of one of the world’s most recognized symbols of peace, the Poppy. And that distinguished symbol
survives today because of? You guessed correctly – a woman! Her name is Anna Guérin. She was inspired by John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”, and campaigned endlessly in the early 1920s, for her Inter-Allied Poppy Day idea: to adopt the distribution of the Poppy on Armistice, now Remembrance Day, as a way to raise money for Veterans’ needs and to remember those who had given their lives during the First World War. After meeting with her on 5 July 1921, the Great War Veterans Association which, in 1925 would form with other Veteran groups to form the Canadian Legion, adopted the Poppy as the flower of Remembrance. In what can only be described as a touch of poetic justice, Madame Guérin became known as, “The Poppy Lady from France.”

To celebrate this 100th anniversary, The Royal Canadian Legion has produced a commemorative Poppy which is reminiscent of the first Poppies distributed across Canada after The First World War. And now that the Poppy Lady from France’s story has been brought to light, it speaks to the role of women and their unique, powerful relationship to the Poppy. And when one looks out across the decades of our country’s evolution since 1914, we can only be deeply impressed. Our population then was just under eight million. Approximately seven percent of the total population was in uniform, at some point during the war; and hundreds of thousands of additional men and women worked on the Homefront to support the troops. And, by the war’s end, some 619,000 Canadians had
enlisted for service overseas. When the roles that women play in war and peacetime are examined, the results are inspiring. In WW I, they were nurses in battle, factory workers, farmworkers, passionate knitters, and countless care-package senders. And in WW II, 50,000 served in uniform.

In peacetime, not only are they spouses and mothers, they are Legion members with the Ladies Auxiliaries in the Royal Canadian Legion branches across Canada, where they are a very effective fundraising component of the Legion. In 2021, it is Canada’s largest community service club, having raised millions of dollars in support of the navy, army, and airforce cadets and an extensive athletic program for young amateur athletes, to name only two of their many community-building activities. Another essential role is that of Veterans’ life partners. Regardless of the era, or the wars, or the UN missions, women have always played an indispensable role. Ask any Veteran what his/her life partner meant to his/her career and the answer is always something like, “couldn’t have done it without her/or him!” expressed in a hundred different personal ways.

The truth is it has only been in this century that there is now wide recognition, acceptance, and admiration of how vital that women’s personal support has been. As a result, nowadays you seldom see or hear the term “Veterans” without the tag on “and their families.”
In 2021, the reality is that women are playing a larger and larger role in the military including service in combat arms. As a result, they are
now filling ranks and appointments of greater and greater responsibility, all the way up to and including that of the country’s highest office, Governor
General and Commander-in-Chief. And as the one-hundredth anniversary and the story of the woman behind our Poppy approaches, we are reminded that there no longer is a question. The debate has ended. Women are indispensable to Canada’s military: yesterday, today, and tomorrow! And Madame Guérin is smiling.

R. Bruce Stock, CD
Maj (Ret’d)
Vimy Branch
Royal Canadian Legion
London, ON
April 2021

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