Opting Remembrance: why we pander to the indifferent

Ask me to recount the poem In Flanders Fields, and I will most likely end up singing it. It was the first song I learned in Canada with my grade five choir, and the first time I  heard the words of John McCrae.


Since my arrival in 2000, every November 11th has been marked with a Remembrance Day ceremony. I have to thank Bonnycastle Elementary School for putting on a large-scale tribute each year, and teaching a young immigrant about what this day is all about. Fast forward to my years in high school, when a passionate teacher tells the class “…and Friday, we are going to be talking about Vimy Ridge.”

She teased this class like any broadcaster does a major event – a countdown to the epic, momentous telling of the battle for Vimy Ridge. The day it happened, she displayed proudly a picture that had been stored the whole semester in the corner of the room – the one that gave me chills to look at everyday before knowing, and still brings uneasy feelings after finding out: those ghosts are our boys.

“Ghosts of Vimy Ridge” William Longstaff, 1931

This same teacher took a class of 40 students across the ocean for a tour of WWI and WWII battlegrounds. These trips aren’t uncommon nowadays and for good reason. Fast forward to 2012: I interview a Saskatoon high school teacher about why it’s important for him to do this same trip for his students.

“…because until you stand in Flanders Fields, smell and see these places you just… it’s just – its life changing.”

 I understand how hard it is to recount the exact emotion. The day I took in the memorial at Vimy Ridge, it was raining the worst it had during our spring time visit in Europe. In the pelting rain, that same passionate teacher stood at the foot of the memorial and recounted her lecture. I never thought I would cry as much as I did that day – I actually ached for these people, and most of all for our young country.

Do I feel this intensity every time I pin on my poppy? No. But I do think “I am wearing this to show I remember. To show I am undertaking the act of remembrance.”

I know there are some who share these sentiments, and others who don’t. For some, the poppy holds as much weight as the great feeling of  having the day off. So I’m here to get back to the basics, back to what I learned at my first school ceremony: the best – and least – we can do today is remember.

Simply cut out all other noise, and think of all those we lost, those who sacrificed and gave themselves for our moment today.


Apparently times are a’changing and we just can’t let Remembrance Day go unscathed: we have to make it political. In Edmonton, some schools are allowing students to “opt out” of the ceremony. In a CTV Edmonton report, Jane Sterling with Edmonton Public Schools said:

“It’s always an option for parents…Typically it’s a really rare request, but in certain situations there are parents that would prefer their children not to be part of the Remembrance Day ceremony.

Sterling said students usually don’t take part in the ceremonies for religious reasons, and only applied in what she called ‘demographic areas’.”

I am going to parrot the view of another mentioned in the story, and many others in arms about this issue: Remembrance Day is not about religion. It’s not about whether it is right or wrong to fight. It is not about anything other than honouring our fallen, and those still alive today, for their service.

Why is that so hard to do?

The amazing thing about this day is it can be presented in so many ways – and is decided by each person in how they remember. So many of my school ceremonies stuck to the basics and encouraged us to think of our own ways to remember:

“We remember because we want to live in a world of peace… We remember because grandpa came back while his best friends didn’t… We remember because these men and women fought for a country where all creeds and races can live together and learn to accept each other.”

And yet some of these people, who would otherwise not be able to live freely with their beliefs, suddenly don’t want in on thanking those who shaped this very country. Therein lies the muddied water of this debate:

Our brave men and women also fought for the freedom of religion and freedom to express beliefs.

Okay, so let’s move on if you are adamant to make it political and religious and you don’t want to bend. Because it’s so far to stoop to offer some gratitude.


Yes, let’s hear from this motley crew. These people who just want to “opt out” without the guilt of being called out as ungrateful and perhaps just a little – spoiled.

“I think it should be a choice with the parents, whether they should celebrate Remembrance Day or just do other activities,” Parent Pam Fillion said.”

Just let that disregard for fellow-man and country dance around in your head for a second. Yeah, it still doesn’t quite keep up with the counts.

I think back now to that first ceremony and wonder what it would have been like to be excused from it all. Every moment thereafter would have been for naught: the Vimy Ridge talk, the trip. I wouldn’t feel the same love for my country; I wouldn’t be able to connect with my surroundings in the same way, with the same respect and regard for all I have; because so many of our interactions are based on the freedoms for which these men and women fought.

I wouldn’t have an ounce of the understanding of just how fortunate we all are to live in Canada. To have the freedom to remember publicly, and peacefully.


The silver lining? Apparently the “importance of Remembrance Day” is still being taught.

Well then consider it an already failed lesson, as these parents and now their children make it clear Remembrance Day isn’t nearly as important as “other activities.”

So this Remembrance Day I will stand even straighter, with even more pride along with my fellow Canadians:

At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them

We will remember them.


For those who don’t know where the last passage is from, ask your teacher.


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