Poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa. Image: Tjololo Photo/Flickr

Sportsnet’s decision to fire commentator Don Cherry for comments he made about “you people’s” apparent refusal to wear poppies on Remembrance Day quickly became symbolic of the country’s deepening ideological divisions.

Competing hashtags on social media trended either decrying Cherry’s comments for their racist exclusion, or defending him for “speaking the truth.” This controversy is especially divisive because it taps people’s sense not only of what is just, but what is sacred.

What we view as sacred is changing in ways that make it difficult to agree about how to resolve deep-seated challenges in the present.

To be clear, these divisions are not new — even with respect to commemoration of our war dead.

In the 1920s, when Remembrance Day was “Armistice Day,” Canadian veterans fought the official government narrative of the war. They accused Canadian General Arthur Currie of disregarding their lives. Currie is infamous for having ordered morning attacks on November 11, 1918 against the Belgian city of Mons, knowing that people would die just hours or minutes before the armistice. His defence in 1928 was that he was just following orders.

These internal traumas of war — the fractious divisions within our own societies — are not what we are called upon to remember on Remembrance Day. These divisions have been buried by time under sacred language of “ultimate sacrifice.”

I remember, as a child, in Cub Scouts, marching down Adelaide St. past the legion in Dalhousie, New Brunswick on November 11 behind the veterans of the 20th century’s great wars. They seemed to me then much older than they really were. I still remember the lines of men in the 1980s — the ones from the First World War. Those men had fought in New Brunswick’s famed North Shore Regiment. Those who fought in the Second World War were part of the D-Day landings.

For those men and a few women, Remembrance Day was a way of honouring fellow soldiers who were friends, and who did not come home. As the poetry of the day suggests, “they shall not grow old.” A great many of those veterans — and they would tell you if you asked — dealt with the guilt of surviving. I remember one veteran of the Normandy landings telling me that it was just luck who survived and who didn’t.

These youthful encounters  provoked in me a profound horror of war, and like many others, a profound appreciation for the people who we were told fought for “our freedoms.”

As these veterans have passed on, the deep divisions that their generations had found too painful to reflect upon have come more fully into the light. My 10-year-old self didn’t know anything about British and German imperial rivalries, which led to the disaster of 1914. I didn’t know that in 1914 women still couldn’t vote, or that British Empire elites had done everything they could for a century (including massacring Napoleonic War veterans) to prevent them and other British workers from obtaining voting rights. In short, the Empire for which we fought was not democratic.

I also didn’t know that prior to defeating the  Nazis, Canada had also refused to receive Jewish refugees, condemning them to the death camps of Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald. Given what was happening in Germany after 1933, the official defence that “we didn’t know this would happen” began to ring hollow.

As the world changed after 1945, so too, gradually, did our values. The 1952 Immigration Act — which remained the law of the land until 1976 — explicitly excluded individuals or groups based on “geographic origin, peculiarity of custom, and unsuitability to the climate.” But in the 1960s, as a younger generation learned about the horrors of anti-semitism, there was growing recognition that the law had to change. It was unions, activists and civil society groups who fought for these and other changes, and who are responsible for what we now consider our “way of life.”

One could argue that these changes were possible in part because of the sacred nature of that “ultimate sacrifice” that men and women made for Canada during the war, fighting against Nazi racist oppression. In the postwar years, it seemed like our laws no longer matched our values, even if in other ways, our values remain tied to an imperial past that includes the legacy of racist oppression and exploitation.

Canada’s more recent imperial entanglements, and our attempts to inscribe the soldiers who fought in those conflicts within the holy pantheon of veterans of the 20th century’s European wars, has created a rift in Canadian society that has also profoundly changed the meaning of Remembrance Day.

Over the last two decades, government-sanctioned commemorations have emphasized the sacred nature of the “ultimate sacrifice” of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, despite a deeply divided public on the merits of Canada’s participation in the U.S.’s “war on terrror” and on the new economic and geopolitical challenges to our liberal democracies.

The poppy need not be a symbol of social division, but it might yet become one, as others have noted. Don Cherry’s comments were triggering for so many because they remind us that the values we see as sacred are not shared by all.

For some, Don Cherry was fired on Remembrance Day for defending the troops. For others, Don Cherry’s bigoted language recalls the evil enemy we defeated at great sacrifice in 1945.

At stake in this jejune dialogue is the actual content of the sacred sacrifice that soldiers made in now increasingly distant wars.

How should Canadians remember the sacrifices of past wars? So long as Canada fails to recognize the colonial nature of its historical conflicts, and the ways in which the sacred evil it purports to have defeated remains alive and well within its own polity, it will be difficult to heal current ideological divisions that climate change and a global economic slowdown promise to exacerbate.

Instead, Remembrance Day will continue to evoke competing stories of the past, which can readily be politicized in the interest of future-oriented projects, not all of them democratic.

Our ability to paper over these divisions in the past stemmed from our ability to repress divisions about the wastefulness of the Great War beneath a reverence for the sacrifices soldiers made to guarantee vague notions of freedom or democracy — both of which were then and remain today unfinished projects.

The way forward is obviously fraught. For some, developing more nuanced understandings of the sacred will be hard and painful work.

That said, collective rituals and sacred symbols are important. They help direct us towards shared, collective labour in the service of our community. They are the foundations of our democratic narratives. We can find a way to remember the sacrifices of our soldiers that also humanizes all victims of war and injustice.  

Matthew Hayes is a sociologist and Canada Research Chair in Global and International Studies at St. Thomas University. His book, Gringolandia: Lifestyle Migration under Late Capitalism (University of Minnesota Press) explores global inequality in the lives of North American migrants to Ecuador.

Image: Tjololo Photo/Flickr