Today, people in Canada and Britain don poppies to mark their remembrance of soldiers who died in World War 1 and in all of the other armed conflicts that followed. Websites sport digital flowers; companies adapt their logos; even the felt poppies dotting the ground, having fallen off careless rememberers' coats, seem intended to remind us we have a job to do. In the first few weeks of November, between Halloween and when Christmas season begins in earnest, we need to remember.
But what good are the poppies on our lapels, really? Well, of course, they signify a person interested in remembering fallen soldiers and in having that remembrance documented by others, not necessarily for selfish purposes, but to express solidarity. Solidarity with the soldiers themselves, with their cause, with the hope for a better world in which war is unnecessary. All worthwhile stuff, most people would agree.
But in recent years Britain has been host to a vigorous debate over the poppy. A renewed push for its use has led some people to conclude that it's being used to shore up support for current military endeavours rather than to remember and mourn the casualties of past battles.
Harry Leslie Smith, a WWII veteran and author, wrote last November about why he would no longer wear a poppy to remember his friends who had died: "I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one's right to privacy."
This is a point rarely made in Canada, and one that might be worth exploring. The Harper government more than any other in recent memory has used the imagery of soldiers and war to its advantage. The bicentennial of the War of 1812 was a huge PR coup for the government, which celebrated Canada's pre-Confederation military might for an entire year. This week, Historica Canada is holding a party to celebrate the launch of a new heritage minute about a team of WWI fighters who went on to win a gold in Olympic hockey.
But behind the cheerleading and feel-good history ads, the Harper government is actually less than supportive of the soldiers who come back from more recent military engagements.
According to statistics released in September, more military personnel have committed suicide since 2004 than died in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2014. The new numbers, which include reservists and "female regular force personnel," stand in stark contrast to claims by the federal government that it is doing all it can for the military personnel and veterans it so often uses for political gain.
Michael Blais, founder and president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, says mental health is one of the most important issues facing veterans.
"Veterans Affairs Canada is clearly not providing expedient services,"he said. "Many, many veterans are taking their lives after they leave the service. Sometimes within weeks, sometimes within months."
Blais said while he's happy with the attention the Department of National Defence has paid to the issue, and to caring for soldiers while they're still serving, post-service care is unconscionably far behind.
Another primary concern is financial benefits: many veterans are unable to survive on the benefits they receive after serving, and feel forgotten by the government they dedicated a part of their lives to. Calculating veterans' benefits is complicated, especially because they rely on individual-specific information on time served and salary.
Adding to that complication is the new veterans charter, which Blais charges has created a two-tier hierarchy that disadvantages new veterans. New vets receive less robust financial support than those of years past, and the issue is compounded for reservists. Blais brought up Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, the former reservist who was killed in Ottawa on Oct. 22; Cirillo's financial benefits were just 45 per cent of the regular forces soldiers he served alongside.
Vets who can still work when they return—who don't have debilitating physical or mental health issues—still face the same post-2008 job market the rest of us are competing in, with plenty of part-time minimum-wage work but very little beyond that. To help veterans re-enter the civilian workforce, the federal government has introduced Bill C-27. This bill would allow veterans released for medical reasons, or who left after serving for at least three years, to apply for jobs only otherwise available to internal public service candidates. The problem with this bill is that the federal public service is in the middle of a hiring freeze, so it doesn't really matter how high on the candidate list a veteran might be.
But no list of the government's many shortcomings in its dealings with veterans would be complete without that time in 2013 when hundreds of employees were laid off and VA offices across the country closed, leaving vets feeling abandoned by the very ministry set up to help them.
In fact, relations between veterans and the federal government have deteriorated so much that six veteran-advocate groups have banded together, creating the Canada Coalition for Veterans and announcing a boycott of federal photo-ops and news releases. They plan to maintain their boycott until the government moves to provide adequate healthcare and financial benefits. Don Leonardo, founder of coalition member group Veterans of Canada, told the Globe and Mail that while he's glad Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino is meeting with advocate groups, talk is no longer enough. "Show me some action,"he said.
Wearing a poppy is a fine way to remember soldiers who fought and died, but the soldiers who fought and came back need more than felt flowers on lapels. They need action from the government, and that will be more likely when people demand it. If we really want to do right by the soldiers, we shouldn't ignore their need for proper health care and employment.