In Canada, and in many countries around the world, Earth Day occurs in April, at or near the beginning of Spring. Earth Day is especially relevant these days because of the nature of Climate Change on our planet. One of the most symbolic aspects of Earth Day is something called Earth Hour. During Earth Hour, people are encouraged to eliminate electrical use from their lives for one hour. This means leaving lights off and using candles, for instance, just for that one hour. It is a visible gesture that lets other people know that you are supportive of good practices when it comes to the environment.
I can remember when Earth Hour first started, fifteen or twenty years ago. It was a fairly big deal. On the late newscasts that night, you would be able to watch notable structures like The Eiffel Tower, The Empire State Building, The C.N. Tower, etc., all go dark. In school, we would practice going non-electrical by turning off our computers, our overhead lights and working quietly with only the daylight to illuminate our work space. Those were heady times when it came to raising environmental awareness and empowering citizens to take action. However, as the years have gone by, fewer and fewer people pay attention to Earth Day and to Earth Hour. Those who no longer participate will tell you that turning your TV off for an hour really makes no discernible difference to one’s carbon footprint so, why bother. Those who don’t participate but have a more positive outlook will reply that caring about the Earth is not a one-day event. Every day should be Earth Day. It should be a lifestyle of positive choices, not just one single day of showy displays.
I will admit that in my house, we no longer light candles and power down our devices during Earth Hour. Instead, we have opted for a full year of positive environmental choices including virtually eliminating the use of plastic bags and straws, planting pollinator gardens for bees and butterflies, using rain barrels to capture rain water and reduce our water consumption and so on. We are not environmentally perfect but, we are making good choices and are on the right track 365 days of the year. To our way of thinking, living an environmentally friendly lifestyle trumps the showy symbolism of participating in Earth Hour. Most of our friends and family members agree. Most of our neighbours do, too. Lifestyle choices and systemic national choices are what will save our planet in the end and since I believe that we have ourselves a nice, little old planet, I advocate for living an environmentally friendly life all year long.
There are many other days on our calendar, like Earth Day, that are really not that important. For example, I love my wife all year long, not just on Valentine’s Day. I love my children all year long, not just on their birthdays. I love my mother all year long, not just on Mothers Day. I am a proud Canadian all year long, not just on Canada Day.
For each of those “days”, I have opted to take the longer term view and incorporate the message that each day brings, into a lifestyle that spans the year. I’m a loving, generous person to everyone I care about. No one has to tell me to treat my family nicely. I care about each one of them and do as much as I can to make their lives better, each and every day of the year. Doing so is an attitude that permeates everything that I do each day. For example, I am retired but, my wife isn’t yet. So, everyday, I do simple things like running errands and doing housework so my wife doesn’t have to worry about that sort of thing when she makes it home from work. This isn’t the showy, red roses kind of gesture that happens on Valentine’s Day but, it does make a difference in the life of someone I care about and it happens every day of her working life. It is a way of living one’s life for the benefit of others and doing so all year long. Because of that, those special days such as Valentines Day, seem forced to us. We almost feel obligated to make some sort of public gesture toward each other so that other people will be ok with it. For us, our love is deep and true and we feel it all 365 days of the year. We don’t need a special day in February to know that we love each other, despite what advertisers may wish us to feel. We live a love-filled life and that trumps the showy symbolism of Valentines Day. I can say the same about birthdays, Mother’s Day and Canada Day, too.
My reason for writing this post today is because of certain events that have transpired in Canada this past week. On Monday, we marked a special day known here as Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day is a day set aside to honour all people who have worn a military uniform for Canada and have fought, in some capacity, in wars around the world. Like caring for the Earth or loving those members of your family, showing respect to those who gave their lives so that we can all live a rather free and democratic life, is something worth doing. Like shutting off your lights for an hour on Earth Day or giving your loved one a box of Belgian chocolates on Valentines Day, there has come to be a socially-acceptable way of symbolically showing respect on Remembrance Day in Canada and that is, by wearing a poppy on the lapel of your coat, over top of your heart.
Remembrance Day is rooted in our History. For example, we observe Remembrance Day on November 11th at 11:00am because that is the date and time that the Armistice agreement was signed, ending World War 1. We wear poppies because of a famous poem written by medical doctor, Lt. John McCrae called In Flanders Field, about poppies growing on the battlefields near where he was tending the wounded. As a country, Canada came of age, in part, because of our participation as our own nation in the Allied Forces that battled on the Western Front in Europe. All through my life, until this year, Remembrance Day has always been a respectful and solemn observance that has always helped to remind everyone of the incredible price paid by some so we can live as we do.
This year in Canada, Remembrance Day didn’t feel like that. It felt divisive.
Increasingly, we seem to be living in a culture of “us vs them”. If you aren’t with us then, you’re against us. There is no common ground anymore. These days, we dig ourselves into our respective social media trenches on either side of our partisan demarcation points and we launch barrage after barrage of verbal grenades at those who aren’t like us. It is all so very ugly and it is a stain on the memories of those we used to seek to honour with our solemnity and decorum. This Remembrance Day was an ugly affair that ended up having very little to do with honouring anyone’s memory and everything to do with creating a patriotic litmus test over the showier aspects of the day. It was very much an “us vs them” yelling match over that ubiquitous notion of what constitutes “Canadian values”. The powder keg that ignited this blast? The little plastic poppies sold by The Royal Canadian Legion.
Apparently, fewer and fewer people have taken to wearing a plastic poppy. Like attendance in Church, poppy use has been on the decline in Canada for several years now. There are various theories on why this is; all of them containing some measure of validity. But, for many Canadians, a decrease in poppy use struck them as just one more attack on the history of Canadian culture. That our country is changing and evolving over time was cloaked in rhetoric that described that change as being a threat from “them” to “us”. In the process, TV personalities and media pundits all got involved in demonizing those bringing change….immigrants…….and the ugliness of it all erupted in volcanic proportions. Somewhere, lost in the muck and the mire, the dead bodies of those soldiers left behind in Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, rotated on a slow burn.
This is the danger when we, as a society, invest all of our energies into symbols instead of practices. The real-life litmus test about how to honour our fallen soldiers is no more about wearing a little plastic Belgian flower in November than buying my wife flowers in February is about how deeply my love runs for her. It is all about lifestyle choices and the attitudes that colour our lives all throughout the year. If we really want to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf, here is a list of things we should do:
1- Vote: If the crux of why Canada went to war twice this past century was to preserve democratic values for those of us left behind then, it is our responsibility to help maintain democracy by voting in the elections that are held. Voting is one of the main ways we can all ensure that our country is run for the benefit of a majority of its citizens. So, if you want to honour a fallen soldier, whisper their name as you mark that “X” on whatever ballot you happen to have. Participatory Democracy is a wonderful thing and something that thousands of soldiers felt was worth fighting for. So, vote!
2- Listen/Read as a Critical Thinker: Somehow, in the poppy debate that sprang to life this week, a lack of critical thinking skills was on display for all to see. Somehow, all Canadian soldiers who fought in wars were white men and we can’t say Merry Christmas anymore and our Prime Minister wore black face at a party in his younger days and so, what ya going to do about that, eh?! Logic disappeared down the rabbit hole and it quickly became very difficult to have a sensible conversation with anyone about Remembrance Day at all. The talk all became about TV personalities and immigrants who, if you follow the Alice-in-Wonderlandesque logic displayed in most online comment threads, aren’t real Canadians and they are the cause of change and we don’t like change now, do we?!
Sometimes a news story is what it is about and, sometimes, it is about something bigger. There was, obviously, a political aspect to the debate about poppies and immigrants and Canadian values. Anti-immigration views are held by right-wing political parties around the world. Seeing as we get so much of our news online these days, it is important to know the spin behind the post or tweet you read. It is equally important to understand how media ownership in Canada shapes the way stories are reported and/or not reported at all. Being a critical thinker and understanding how information makes its way to your screen is a very important skill to have. Sometimes, a simple sound bite is easier to digest than to actually take the time to examine an issue but, if you really want to honour the memory of a fallen soldier then, take the extra time to read critically so you completely understand what you are debating and what is at stake. Because, let’s be honest, the poppy controversy this week was never really about poppies.
3- Be a Decent Human Being: If you are ever read a survey of citizens of foreign countries being asked about Canada and Canadians, you always get the same results: Canadians are nice and friendly and kind and caring and have good education system and healthcare and lots of beautiful land. Our image in the world remains very positive. We can honour the memory of our veterans by helping to keep Canada that country that is a such a role-model throughout the world. One of the best ways to do that is by being all of the things that we are known for. Be kind to those you come into contact with. It costs nothing to smile and be pleasant and polite. Live an environmentally friendly lifestyle because it helps preserve the wonderful countryside, of which there is so much in Canada. Be thankful and grateful to those who work on your behalf. If you want to thank a veteran or honour a memory, do so but, as well, thank your waiter/waitress, thank the cook who made your meal. Thank your child’s teacher. Thank a police officer or fire fighter or nurse for all they do. Be thankful and positive as your go-to option in life. People appreciate being treated nicely. Raising the tenor of our social conduct is a wonderful way to maintain a Canada that the world loves and that millions died to protect.
4- Be Receptive To Change: Change is a part of life. I know that I certainly live differently now that I did half a lifetime ago. Some of those changes have come at my discretion but, others have come because of age or finances or external factors such as the environment. Regardless of how I arrived at each new point in my life, each new point appeared and I was tasked with accepting said change or fighting it. When it comes to the poppy debate, this is one of the fundamental underlying aspects: change and how people react toward it.
Those who stoke division as a political tool will tell you that change is to be avoided at all cost. Change is a threat to a way of life that deserves protection and continuation. For example, green energy is portrayed as a threat to those who favour fossil fuels. Immigration is portrayed as a threat to those who believe that a white, Christian culture is the foundation of our History. There is never room for blending options; one is good and one is always bad. One is to be treasured, one is to be feared. In the poppy debate this week, immigrants were used as a political tool to reinforce the notion that change is bad and is to be resisted. I have had several conversations this week with people about this and each of them said, at one point or another, “I wish things didn’t have to change.” It was said with a sigh and a sense of resignation that “others, who are different from us” will be defining how we live our lives going forward. That is too bad because that is not how it needs to be. Change can be wonderful.
Meeting my wife changed my life in a significant way, as did, having children. But, in both instances, that change bettered my life. When I grew up, I did so in a house that served a meat-and-potatoes meal almost every night. I loved those foods and still enjoy ham and steak and roast beef, etc. today. But, moving away from home brought me into contact with people who came from different cultural backgrounds and who introduced me to things like pirogies, curry, homemade tortillas and so much more. My diet is richer and more varied because I accepted change into my life. The biggest recent change for me has been retirement and the greatest positive consequence of retiring has been a complete revamping of how I spend my time during a day. I am more relaxed/less stressed, I do more of what I am interested in doing, I still get to be helpful to others and because I can get things done around the house during the day, it changes how family time is used because that time is no longer having to be spent on errands or chores as much as it once did. Change has given me a family and good food and time to use as I see fit. Change has been good and I am thankful to all of the various kinds souls who have come into my life and helped me grow as a person.
As we move onward with our lives, it is my belief that we need to do so with a greater resolve to move away from placing too much importance on symbolic gestures such as wearing a poppy or turning off your lights on Earth day and move toward developing a year-long set of lifestyle choices that demonstrate our commitment to a healthier environment, a more loving and positive social life, a more involved and aware sense of civic responsibilities and a broader, deeper appreciation for the changes that life throws our way.
I will end with the following: at the beginning of the movie Patton, actor George C. Scott, in the title role, famously said, “No one ever won a war by dying for their country. They won the war by making some other dumb, son of a bitch die for his country.” Our soldiers fought their wars with the belief that they were the good guys. They believed that they were representing a nation that was good, as well. They fought against oppression and cruelty. They fought for freedom and democracy. If we want to honour their memory, wear a little plastic flower on your lapel if that so moves you but, more than that, honour their memory by living a life of honour and charity and faithfulness. Be a good person. Last time I checked, good people came in all shapes, sizes, colours, religions, genders, and cultures, too.