Friday, 2 November 2012

Poppy Politics: Remembrance, Inc. & Quebec

Another Remembrance Day dust-up has emerged in what has become an almost annual event unto itself. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois raised the ire of several groups - including some veterans - but particularly anglophones and the Royal Canadian Legion. Marois's crime is, in essence, copyright infringement. She adapted the poppy to include the Fleur-de-lis at its centre.

Mariois's crime, of course, is magnified by the fact that she is - as critics and the media so dutifully remind us whenever the opportunity arises - a sovereigntist. As such she is automatically making a political statement, using the sacrifice of Canadian veterans - my phrasing is deliberate - to advance her own machinations for a sovereign Quebec.

This most recent tempest in a tea cup demonstrates once again that English Canada - or, more appropriately, the 'Rest of Canada' (ROC) - genuinely does not understand Quebec. Separatism - a wholly legitimate (if undesirable) belief about what constitutes the good life for one's community, even if it is wrong-headed or exclusionary - is treated as a belief on par with blasphemy. A moral failure that taints the beliefs and actions of those who subscribe to it. It is, in effect, treated as an intellectual leprosy which corrupts. One is reminded of the numerous 'red scares' of the past century (and those that are popping up in the present), of irrational fear and denigration. We are more tolerant of hate speech than we are of political differences in this regard.

This line of reasoning, this cavalier dismissal of sovereignty, denies the possibility of at once being a Quebec nationalist and a Canadian. It precludes the confluence of being an anglophone and a proud Quebecois - something that, admittedly, the PQ itself essentially denies - as well as the possibility that  supporter for the PQ can mean more than or less than a tacit approval for sovereignty.

In the context of the poppy fiasco, it also denies difference in forms of remembrance and national expression, disciplining to create a homogenized conformity of remembrance. It denies legitimacy to individual expression which has been forged by divergent historical and cultural experience, replete with a very particular iconography. Mariois's actions could not be read as a legitimate interpretation - nationalist, perhaps - reading of remembrance because the discourse does not allow it. It is unthinkable that the Premier of Quebec would be so callous as to single out the contribution of the provinces contribution to either the Greater War or the Second World War (in which 175 441 Quebecers were in uniform). The wearing of a trillium in Ontario would not have drawn such animosity or a questioning of motives, yet Quebec's particular focus on its own veterans is read solely as a deeply disrespectful sovereigntist ploy.

This is not the first controversy surrounding the adaption of the poppy by 'unlicensed' groups. In 2010, peace activists created white poppies in their hopes of honouring Canada's war dead by promoting peaceful resolution. The argument is, simply put, that honouring the sacrifice of men and women in uniform is not a mutually exclusive with the project of remembrance. The public reaction was somewhat mixed.

In both cases what hasn't been mixed is the response of the Royal Canadian Legion who have lashed out at both Mariois and the peace activists in 2010 for more crass reasons. The prime concern for the Legion is protecting its brand. It is militant - ironically so, in a way reminiscent of Naomi Klein's No Logo - in its assault on anyone, charity, politician or otherwise, who deigns to defy the intellectual property of the Royal Canadian Legion. This leaves Canadians in an awkward position. Remembrance has been, in effect, monopolized and sole sourced, privately held, albeit by a charity.

It is incredibly problematic to have a symbol so closely attached to national identity and our history be trademarked, whether the holder is a non-profit organization or not. It is a denial of an event of national signification to the public in which national acts and symbols are held hostage to private dictates. It restricts the ways in which Canadians can effectively memorialize, comment upon or claim part of our past.. It represents, in effect, the privatization and commodification of remembrance.

Canadians are denied fair use in adapting the poppy, even including a maple leaf, because it diminishes the brand of the Legion. Incorporating the emblem for private use is forbidden. Moreover, rather than truly acting as a symbol for veterans, the poppy has become a symbol of the legion itself. It lays sole claim to speaking on behalf of veterans and authoritatively so.

The poppy isn't simply a symbol of the legion. It is a Canadian symbol, one with a tremendous cache and resonance for many Canadians, including many in Quebec, anglophone of francophone alike. The response of the legion, on one hand is reasonable. Its poppy campaign is an important source of revenue, on that needs to be jealously guarded. Yet one can protect this revenue without denying fair use to those who support the cause yet wish to remember in their own way by adapting the poppy. The Legion confuses holding a copyright with actual ownership. The reality is that the poppy is a powerful Canadian symbol, one that the Legion merely holds in trust. Its myopia undermines its endeavour. Remembrance is not a business, it is a collective experience, one Canadians - even sovereigntists - should be free to express in their own way without fear of violating the copyright of Remembrance, Inc.

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