The Remembrance Poppy is Becoming a Weapon Against Immigrants to Canada

Canada’s “diversity” is famous – or a bit infamous for the redneckers in a country larger than the US who still cannot quite accept that this is an immigrant nation.

On a Toronto tram, I’ve often found myself the only Anglo-Saxon aboard. But I don’t find this odd. I am not a Canadian, but my Canadian fellow travellers are clearly from Pakistan, China, Egypt, eastern Europe, Iran, India, Syria, you name it. Some came as refugees – just as Jews tried (often vainly) to come before the Second World War; turned away by an antisemitic prime minister. Others were born in Canada. It works.

Sure, there are gang fights involving immigrant groups, a few “honour killings” – how I hate that expression – among Muslim families who have not understood that they live in a new world where the cruel fiefdom of tribal ignorance has no place. But yes, Canada is a real country with a history and a population which votes with an impartiality, a liberalism and a moderation that puts Trump’s America to shame – not that this would be difficult.

Even now, however, three weeks after the event, the words of an old, croaking right-wing hockey commentator who suggested – let us not put too fine a point upon it – that these immigrant lads and lassies were not quite up to the patriotic standards that Canada expects, are still drawing incendiary remarks from Montreal to Vancouver. For Don Cherry, the Canadian hockey fanatic in question, decided that their refusal/indifference/general reluctance to display the poppy on Remembrance Sunday showed that immigrants did not appreciate the sacrifices made by the Canadians of two world wars to create “the land of milk and honey”. We’ll return to Exodus chapter 3, later.

But first, we better run through what Cherry, now fired from his job as a radio and television hockey “commentator” – which never had much to do with poppies – actually said on 9 November. I have to admit at once that hockey strikes me as one of the most boring games in the history of sport – Canadians of every ethnic origin are thus free to throw sticks and stones at me for the next week – but Cherry’s words, disjointed, fragmented, left little room for misunderstanding.

“I live in Mississauga [west of Toronto]; nobody wears, very few people wear a poppy. Downtown Toronto, forget it, downtown Toronto, nobody wears a poppy… Now you go to the small cities and you know, the rows on rows, you people love – that come here, whatever it is – you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price. Anyhow, I’m going to run it for you great people and good Canadians that bought a poppy.”

As the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur put it, “you people who come here” didn’t mean Romanians, Swedes or Russians “because if Cherry is walking around downtown Toronto or Mississauga, he’s not spotting white immigrants who aren’t wearing poppies”. Cherry was addressing “you people who come here” – in other words, ungrateful immigrants. This rant was not just a rant from the past, of course. It was a rant from a non-existent past. As almost every other commentator in the Canadian press pointed out – and there was a glorious consistency among both the left and the right-wing newspapers – people of colour have long fought for Canada, in both world wars, including Chinese Canadians who did not yet have the right to vote, indigenous Canadians and Sikhs.

And if Cherry’s crackpot sentences referred to Indians, what about the 1.3 million Indian soldiers who served in the First World War as part of the British Empire, or the 74,000 Indian soldiers killed in the Second World War? And what about the 30 Indian soldiers – fighting from Hong Kong to Italy – who were awarded the Victoria Cross? Non-white soldiers fought for the liberation of Europe while being denied at home the exact same freedoms they were fighting for. These brave men were simply not counted in the historical clock which ticked round inside Cherry’s brain. Did their sons and daughters or grandchildren in Canada have to wear poppies to remember this sacrifice?

Lawyer Humera Jabir pointed out that Private Buckam Singh was the first Sikh man to enlist with the Canadian army in 1915 in the First World War and died without family or community in Canada in 1919 from illness contracted during the war. Frank Wong, a Chinese Canadian, fought in the Second World War, landed on Juno Beach in 1944 and fought for the liberation of northern Holland. But when he went home to Canada, he was – like other Chinese and Asian Canadians – denied the vote until 1949. The first female radio operator sent to Nazi-occupied France was Noor Inayat Khan – a writer, a Muslim, a musician and a member of Indian royalty. She refused to return to Britain after other British agents were arrested, and was finally captured by the Gestapo, tortured and executed at Dachau. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross by Britain and the Croix de Guerre by France.

How come the institutional memory fails the right wing so badly in modern politics? Did all these soldiers, women as well as men, die for Canada and its allies so that Cherry and his chums should force their descendants to wear poppies? I’m not sure how many of Canada’s “visible minorities” – another phrase I instinctively loathe – wore poppies last month. Many of the Canadian television hosts, presenters and reporters, and politicians – like their British counterparts – wore poppies, I suspect, more as a fashion accessory than out of a sense of gratitude for the dead; alas, the emblem of the poppy was directly inspired by a poem by a Canadian medical officer of the First World War, John McCrae from Guelph, Ontario, who wrote “In Flanders Fields” as an appeal for more men to go on fighting rather than for peace and an end to conflict.

No matter. My favourite contribution to the Cherry debate was published in a tiny newspaper called the Okanagan Daily Courier which I picked up during a lecture tour of Canada in the far western town of Kelowna. In the letters column, a woman, whose poppy had accidentally fallen from her coat, wrote of how her uncle was killed when his Royal Indian Air Force Spitfire was shot down over Burma (Myanmar) in the Second World War. Cherry should have been aware, she said, “that Canadians were a part of thousands of ‘you people’ from so many other countries, of which British India… paid an enormous price in lives given”.

As for Cherry’s egregious use of the Promised Land – “the land of milk and honey” – he clearly forgot that it was not created in Canada for one people only. As for those who supported the “hockey” commentator who thought poppy-wearing was a national sport – wasn’t he only saying what many Canadians believe: that immigrants should behave more like “us”? It’s the same old argument that you can dig up among the right in Europe. It starts with personal behaviour and ends – it is intended to end, surely – with the refrain that these ungrateful people should return to their countries of origin.

And that’s the problem faced by all immigrant societies. For if you follow this insidious argument to its logical conclusion, the architecture of Canada would be as it is now – a series of great cities with Scottish and English street names and pseudo-baronial castles (try Banff) – but its inhabitants would be elk, grizzly bears and a dying white race. Don Cherry is in his eighties and would be one of them.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.