Worn by everyone from young children to aging veterans, the poppy has been a symbol of respect and gratitude for the last century. But when you see all the poppies on lapels today, you may also want to consider: Who sells the poppies and why, who benefits from the proceeds, and what more can be done in Canada to support veterans and their families.
1. Poppy sales and programs they support
Thick rows of poppies grew over soldiers’ graves in Flanders, France, and were the inspiration for the now famous poem that Canadian medic Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote on a scrap of paper in 1915 during the First World War. Today, most schoolchildren can recite the first two lines of McCrae’s poem: In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row. The poem was also the inspiration for wearing poppies on lapels every November as a sign of remembrance.
Thousands of volunteers with the Royal Canadian Legion sell these poppies across Canada each year. In the 2016 Poppy Campaign, more than 21.5 million poppies were distributed, and $16.7 million in donations were used to support veterans and their families between October 2016 to October 2017.
The poppy sale proceeds provide financial assistance to veterans in need in many ways, including:
- Grants for food, living expenses, medication, emergency shelter.
- Housing and care facilities.
- Programs that help veterans transition from military to civilian life.
- Accessibility modifications to help veterans with disabilities.
- Educational bursaries for children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of veterans.
- Community drop-in centres, meals-on-wheels, and seniors services in areas with many veterans.
- Administering Remembrance Day activities.
2. Veterans by the numbers
There are 649,300 veterans in Canada:
- 48,300 served in the Second World War or Korean War.
- 601,000 are Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) veterans, from regular and primary reserves.
- B.C. has the third-highest number of veterans with 91,700, behind Quebec (120,600) and Ontario (235,700).
- 10 per cent of veterans are women.
- 93 — Second World War
- 86 — Korean War
- 60 — Regular CAF
- 55 — Primary Reserves
- Veterans Affairs Canada provides services to about 18 per cent of Canadian vets for issues such as disability pensions or rehabilitation services. Since 2010, it has assisted more modern-day CAF veterans than traditional war service veterans.
- In 2017/18, services were provided to 20,139 war vets and 96,644 CAF vets.
- By 2022/23, that difference is expected to increase as war vets continue to age, when Ottawa anticipates serving only 5,500 of them, but 119,700 modern-day CAF vets.
More than 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces personnel were sent to Afghanistan, the largest deployment since the Second World War. The mission ended in 2014.
- There are 16,500 Afghanistan veterans, and 10,550 of those receive disability benefits.
- Mental health conditions were the most common reason for disability benefits, followed closely by PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
3. Royal Canadian Legions: then and now
Legions organize poppy sales and support for veterans, but as the veteran population declines so, too, do legion memberships. Across Canada, the number of members peaked in 1984 with 602,500 but dropped to 550,000 by 1996, according to a Vancouver Sun story written at the time. Today, legions count just 270,000 members across Canada, but are trying to get that number back up to 300,000, said David Whittier, executive director of the B.C. Yukon Command.
The trend has been similar in the B.C.-Yukon region:
- 2010 — 66,000 members and 152 branches
- 2016 — 57,000 members and 149 branches
- 2018 — 45,000 members and 147 branches
There are about 5,000 new members registered a year in B.C. and Yukon, Whittier said, but that’s not enough to offset the number who leave each year. The biggest growth has been in affiliate members — those joining the legion without a military background — who now represent more than 30 per cent of the local membership. The other members include veterans and active CAF (24 per cent) and their relatives (44 per cent).
To retain existing members and attract more, the B.C.-Yukon branches have explored changes to some locations to make them more popular with younger generations, such as a coffee shop model with lattés and free Wi-Fi.
“We really want to reach out to veterans of all ages and eras, and we really want to reach out to their families and the community,” Whittier said.
A slide show prepared for the legion’s 2017 convention, entitled New Era, New Legion, discusses new potential revenue streams such as bakeries, lunch-box delivery services, and community shuttle services. It said one branch makes $20,000 annually by holding farmer’s markets.
Suggestions also include trying to recruit new members through commercials, and transit advertising, and through new creative evening activities such as open-mike, trivia contests and dance lessons.
Whittier’s message is that people should consider joining the legion for all the good community work it does, such as those programs supported by poppy sales. “The legion does a lot of really tangible, useful things,” he said.
4. The War Amps turn 100
The War Amps, which began helping military amputees, now raises money to help a variety of people who have lost a limb, including children. Some of its history:
1918: On Sept. 23, 1918, the Amputation Club of British Columbia held its first meeting for war amputees, the start of many similar groups that would form across Canada and eventually amalgamate into a national organization.
1932: The War Amps and four other veteran groups lobbied the federal government for improved rights for war veterans, especially those with disabilities.
1946: The Key Tag Service began. It raises money and also provides jobs for amputees, who make the identification tags that Canadians attached to valued items. To date, 1.5 million sets of lost keys have been returned to their owners.
1962: The War Amps started to help all Canadian amputees, not only war veterans.
1975: The CHAMP program was started to offer support services to child amputees and their families, including financial assistance, regional seminars and connections with peers.
2016: In this year alone, there were 1,072 amputees enrolled with the War Amps, and it granted 3,355 requests for financial help to buy prosthetics.
2018: On its 100th birthday, the War Amps says it is serving an increasing number of amputees. “There is still much to do to ensure amputees have the artificial limbs they need to lead independent and active lives,” its website says.
5. How and where to celebrate Remembrance Day
The B.C.-Yukon Legion website lists the details of 150 Remembrance Day ceremonies happening across the province on Nov. 11.
There are seven events in Vancouver. One of the most popular is the ceremony and parade that begins at 9:45 a.m. at the Victory Square Cenotaph downtown, which has major historical significance. The tiny park was filled with recruiting tents for the First World War, and later soldiers returned there to re-enact the conditions in the trenches and to fire rockets into the air in an effort to raise money for charity. In 1922, the park was named Victory Square and the cenotaph was built two years later.