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Remembrance Day poppies lie on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War memorial. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

When Canadian veterans gather at the National War Memorial to honour those who served and those who died in this country's wars, there may be unwelcome guests: activists distributing white poppies, which they say symbolize peace, claiming the red ones celebrate war.

Their stunt threatens to disrupt a sombre moment with a manufactured controversy. Remembrance Day has never been about glorifying war. Rather, it's about reflecting upon its horrors and its sacrifices, which Canadians have been forced to endure over the past century.

Red poppies versus white ones? For anyone who has suffered real loss at the hand of conflict, this kind of debate borders on offensive. It is also profoundly ignorant.

Story continues below advertisement

The red poppy wasn't initially used by politicians to rally troops for battle. It was first used by the American Legion – veterans – to commemorate soldiers who died in the First World War.

Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was hardly a warmonger. The Canadian surgeon wrote "In Flanders Fields" after presiding over the funeral of his good friend Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium. He was just 22 years old.

Red poppies – not white – grow in those devastated battlefields. For those who fought, the flower's vivid colour was not political. It was heartbreaking, and evoked the blood of fallen comrades.

Today, the poppy does not only commemorate Canadian soldiers who fought and died in the First and Second World Wars. It also honours those who have served in Afghanistan, Haiti, Cyprus, the Middle East and elsewhere. It is a reminder that Canadian soldiers continue to serve and sacrifice.

The poppy is also more than just a symbol. Last year, the Royal Canadian Legion's annual poppy campaign raised $14-million, and 18 million Canadians wore the red flower. The money is used to help struggling veterans and their families pay for things like dental care, eyeglasses, medical prescriptions, shelter and meals.

The Legion has warned that the white poppy campaign – beyond being offensive – distracts from, and undermines, this vital work. Wearing a red poppy is a way to honour more than 110,000 men and women who died fighting Canada's wars overseas. It's also a way of giving back to those who live on.

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