Photo by Eric Yip.
Remembrance Day doesn’t exist in the States. (I was born there and stayed for a little over twenty-two years, and I think I’d have noticed it if it were around.) The US does, of course, have Veterans Day, also celebrated on November 11. And then there’s Memorial Day, a holiday with origins in the Civil War that’s celebrated on the last Monday of each May. Memorial Day has more purchase in the public imagination because it’s always the cap on a three-day weekend, and because when it comes the weather is usually warm enough to accommodate a cookout.
Remembrance Day, though, is when Toronto most clearly asserts its Canadian-ness. It’s the poppy pins that do it.
They’re strictly a Commonwealth thing, unheard of south of the border. Watching them proliferate on the jackets of Torontonians makes one glad to live in a place whose citizens have a proud appreciation for worthwhile sacrifice. But the poppies are also a reminder that that sacrifice was made on behalf of a nation. Remembrance Day is something Canadians do among themselves. The feeling of being on the outside of this tradition―one of the people without a poppy―isn’t so much one of rebuke as one of dawning realization: there are civic ties that run deeper than just city ties, and there are things about Canada that will always be slightly baffling to the outsider.
Like, for example, the thing that happened with Eddie Bauer this week and last.
The clothing retailer, based in a city just to the east of Seattle, had been promoting a one-week-only Remembrance Day sale (“UP TO 75% OFF”). In the US, this type of thing wouldn’t even be worth mentioning. Veterans Day and Memorial Day sales are completely normal, even in the parts of the country where one would expect martial pride to be at its strongest―places where gun racks come standard on every pickup truck. But Canada’s reaction to Eddie Bauer’s sale was swift and violent: within days, news media from here to Edmonton were running stories on the controversy sparked by the sale, citing an outpouring of disgust on various social media platforms over the crass commercialization of the holiday. Even Torontoist had an item. After a few days, Eddie Bauer was forced to resort to damage control. A note of apology appeared on the company’s Facebook page, signed by President and CEO Neil Fiske. “We are sensitive to this matter and have adjusted our marketing and communication accordingly,” Fiske writes. The note has twenty-two “likes.”
Canada defends Remembrance Day from commercial corruption, it seems. And not just when it’s coming from private enterprise. This year, the federal government announced that they would be exempting poppy pins from the new Harmonized Sales Tax. The pins are distributed by the Royal Canadian Legion, who had been making them in-house until 1996, when they contracted with a private company, Toronto-based Dominion Regalia, to handle production. The tax would have been applied to the cost of the Legion’s order from Dominion, who this year made sixteen million poppies. The 13% HST would have cost the Legion almost $800,000.
Maybe the strongest evidence of Toronto’s commitment to upholding the solemnity of the day is the TTC’s willingness to risk rider irritation (something, remember, that they’ve had problems with in the past) for the sake of remembrance. Each year, in advance of Remembrance Day, a memo circulates to drivers instructing them to observe a “Wave of Silence,” consisting of a two-minute full-stop, at 11:00 a.m., of all TTC vehicles: subways, buses, streetcars, and even Wheel-Trans vehicles.
Thursday morning, on Remembrance Day, the city’s streets were alive. At about 10:30, a small group of old men in military uniforms with Star-of-David emblems sewn onto their caps gathered in front of a small podium on the sidewalk outside the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, at Bloor and Spadina. At 10:40, a thick crowd stood in front of Old City Hall, awaiting a flyover by the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team and a nice speech by David Miller. At 10:50, on the south lawn of Queen’s Park, a very large crowd awaited an address from Dalton McGuinty, but on the north lawn were only a handful of Canada Forces personnel, some civilian onlookers, and five howitzers. While someone read a benediction, a chorus of voices singing “O Canada” could be heard from beneath U of T’s Soldiers’ Tower, where yet another ceremony was being held. At 11:00 there was silence.
Then, members of the 7th Toronto Regiment loaded blanks into the howitzers and fired them one after another, again and again, blowing yellow and orange leaves off the trees in Queen’s Park and creating a noise so loud and percussive it could be felt on the chest, where the poppy would go.