With the precision of a military campaign, the Poppy Committee of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 124 in Niagara-on-the-Lake has planned the pre-Remembrance Day distribution of the ubiquitous red flowers.
The poppies will be available starting this Friday, Oct. 30.
By the end of the two-week campaign, the local branch will have raised close to $20,000 to support the needs of local combat veterans and their families.
Poppies have been tied to the tragedy of warfare from as far back as the 19th century. But it took a Guelph native, Lt.-Col.l John McCrae, in the trenches of the First World War, to pen the ode that would capture the hearts and minds of Canada and the rest of the world.
His “In Flanders Fields,” written following the death of a fellow soldier, was published by Punch Magazine in 1915. The poem has become enshrined in the fabric of Canada’s military history.
The 2020 poppy campaign will be very different, says committee chair Margaret Boldt.
“We expect only a few canvassers, because of COVID,” says Boldt. She has been a NOTL resident since the age of 12 and a member of the Legion for 30 years. She didn’t see active service but many of her previous family generation were active in the military.
“We’re leaving canvassing up to the individual volunteers. If they want to do it, we won’t say no. But it is a much more complicated process with masks and gloves and so on.”
Stan Harrington, another member of the committee, chimes in: “Most of our volunteers are older so I don’t think you’ll see many canvassers out, really.”
Harrington’s job is planning and executing the distribution of the poppies. He’s been a Legion member for 36 years and in charge of the poppy distribution for 15.
He admits 2020 is a challenging year. “We have 203 poppy box locations across Niagara-on-the-Lake, from the St. Catharines border to Queenston and the Old Town, and everywhere in between.”
“Twenty years ago, there were only 45 boxes, but you had more canvassers on the street at high-traffic spots—the LCBO, food stores and so on.”
Harrington talks about his many years as a canvasser in front to the Old Town liquor store. “I got to know everybody,” he smiles, remembering the easy relationship he had with his poppy-buyers.
There’s a kind of earned seniority with the best canvassing sites.
For Boldt’s first canvassing effort, she was told where to go. “The vets allotted the best sites for themselves. You just couldn’t sit in their place. They would get mad. It’s cute. It’s tradition.”
Harrington says the best example of site “ownership” was the late Al Derbyshire. “You could never have anybody but Al at the Niagara Bakery. For 30 years. They really took care of him — coffee and so on.”
As in recent years, there are two versions of a poppy: the traditional pin-on and the poppy sticker. Each donation box will carry both versions.
As a trial for 2020, there will also be touchless, tap-enabled donation boxes, in limited supply across Canada, at 250 branches of HSBC Bank Canada.
By far the most popular version is the stick-on, especially for kids. “Or if you have a leather coat,” chuckles Harrington.
“The kids always take extra for their school binders and refrigerators. I’m sure there are moms out there that aren’t too happy to have them on the windows and the walls.”
“But it is great to get the young people so engaged with the history of our veterans.”
Both Boldt and Harrington are quick to correct the misconception that the Legion sells the poppies. “We don’t sell, we distribute.”
None of the money raised in the campaign is used by the branch. All proceeds are directed to local veterans for such things as lift chairs and other equipment.
Harrington and his team start assembling all the elements of the campaign in September, storing the boxes and poppies on almost every flat surface of the Legion hall. He has a group of six volunteer drivers for the one-day distribution blitz on the 30th.
The Royal Canadian Legion has 280,000 members in 1,350 branches across Canada. The organization distributes some 19 million poppies each year, raising over $15 million to support veterans and their families.