The hidden history of the poppy

How a First World War poem about poppies blossomed into an annual Remembrance Day campaign raising $14 million each year to assist veterans.

by Danelle Cloutier – As published in Canada’s History Magazine

Lt.-Col. John McCrae and his dog Bonneau. Library and Archives Canada/MIKAN 3192003
Lt.-Col. John McCrae and his dog Bonneau.
Library and Archives Canada/MIKAN 3192003

Amid the blasting bombs, lifeless bodies, and muddy trenches of the Great War, bright red poppies flourished in Flanders Fields, Belgium. This sight inspired a poem that moved the British Empire. Now, each Remembrance Day, many people wear the blood-red flower (albeit artificial ones) to honour those who died at war. Here’s how the poppy became an enduring symbol.

Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was serving as medical officer in Belgium when he wrote “In Flanders Fields.” A friend had just died from wounds sustained on the battlefield, and, in May 1915, as he awaited the wounded from nearby Ypres, he drew inspiration from the blood-red poppies that grew in the region. London magazine Punch published McCrae’s work in December 1915 and it quickly became one of the most popular war poems.

Two days before the Armistice, American humanitarian and academic Moina Michael read McCrae’s poem while on duty at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters in New York. Servicemen would go there to say goodbye to family and friends before heading overseas. Inspired by McCrae’s poem, Michael wrote her own called, “We Shall Keep the Faith,” in which she vows to wear the poppy to remember the war dead: “And now the torch and poppy red, we wear in honor of our dead.”

In 1920, Anna Guérin, a French woman, was inspired by Michael’s idea to make poppies a memorial flower. Soon after, Guérin made red silk poppies and sold them in Britain to raise money for the Earl Haig Fund in support of former soldiers and the families of those who died during the war. The newly formed British Legion sold nine million of the poppies on November 11 of that year, raising more than 106,000 British pounds.

Guérin convinced the Great War Veterans Association of Canada to use the poppy as a symbol of remembrance while fundraising, which it first did on July 5, 1921.

By 1922, poppies distributed in Canada were made by disabled veterans, via the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment.

On Remembrance Day in 1933, the Co-operative Women’s Guild — an organization in Great Britain that encourages and educates women — distributed the first white poppies to challenge the continuing push for war. A year later, the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) started distributing the white poppies and still does today. Although the PPU says the white poppies aren’t meant to insult the war dead, many view them as disrespectful.

From 1980 to 2002, poppy centres were green. The colour reverted to black to better represent the colour of the poppies in Flanders. Over the years poppies have been made from different materials. In the United Kingdom, early poppies were made from silk but now are made from paper, whereas in the United States wearing fake flowers on Remembrance Day never took off. In Canada, our weather makes plastic a better medium.

Today, the Royal Canadian Legion holds its Poppy Campaign from the last Friday in October to Remembrance Day. The money raised from this campaign provides financial assistance to veterans, funding medical equipment, research, home services, long-term facilities, and more. The campaign raises about $14 million annually from donations.

Tolling of the Bell: Prince Edward Island Ghost Story

As retold by

S. E. Schlosser

ghosts-three-womenIn the wee hours of Friday morning, October 7, 1859, when all the good residents of Charlottetown should still be sleeping in their beds, a deep bell tone was heard from the bell tower in St. James Church. The somber sound rang out over the rooftops, waking many with the unexpectedness of its doom-laden ring. Then a second toll rang slowly overhead, followed by a third.

Bewildered by the unexpected tolling of the bell, two neighbors who lived near the church hurriedly joined forces in the road outside their homes and went to investigate. Above them, the bell tolled for the fourth time, and again for the fifth time.

As they entered the church yard, the bell tolled for the sixth time, and the front doors of the church swung open with a windy blast. Framed in the doorway were three glowing women dressed all in white. The men gasped, unsure if they were seeing real women, or angels. Overhead, the bell tolled for a seventh time and the doors slammed shut as quickly as they had opened. The men raced to the doors and tugged on the handles, but they were firmly locked. When they peered through the windows, the men saw a glowing woman in white ascending the stairs to the belfry.

The minister and the sexton arrived at that moment, demanding to know what the disturbance was about. The neighbors told the new arrivals what they had seen, and the minister unlocked the door to the church. As they entered the vestibule, they saw no sign of the women the neighbors had seen in the doorway. A quick glance through the church revealed not a living soul.

As the men ascended toward the belfry, the bell tolled for the eighth time. They ran up the stairs, determined to confront the culprit and demand and explanation. When they reached the top, they found the belfry empty and the bell rope tied firmly in place, though the metal of the church bell was still vibrating slightly.

Puzzled and frightened, the minister and his companions searched the church from top to bottom, but it was completely empty. As the bell gave no further sign of tolling, the men left the church, mystified by what had happened.

That evening, the local passenger steamer between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island – called the Fairie Queene – failed to arrive. The people of Charlottetown learned a few days later that the ship had sunk, killing the eight passengers who had boarded her that day. It is said that the bell of Saint James Church tolled eight times on the day of the disaster, thus foretelling the doom of the five men and three women who would board the Fairie Queene later that day.


Coming Soon, November 2016


A teenager’s unique coming of age tale on an epic 1,500-mile cattle drive through the vast primordial wilderness of 19th-century British Columbia

LOOSELY based on an actual cattle drive from Hanceville, British Columbia, to Canada’s remote Yukon Territory, this fictional tale pits 17-year-old Cory Twilingate against the 19th-century wilderness in order to save his father’s cash-strapped ranch.

Accompanying him on this epic adventure is the ranch foreman, “Reb” Coltrane, a ruggedly handsome cowpoke from down Texas way, and together they form a bond that is both steadfast and enduring.

Watch for it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble!

John Shiwak, Inuit hunter, trapper, and soldier

Shiwak would impress all as an exceptional scout and marksman. One officer would call him the best sniper in the British army.

John Shiwak, Inuit soldier (1889 - 1917)
John Shiwak, Inuit soldier (1889 – 1917)

John Shiwak (Sikoak), Inuit hunter, trapper, and soldier; b. February or March 1889 in Rigolet, Labrador, eldest son of John Shiwak and Sarah Susanna —; d. unmarried 20 or 21 Nov. 1917 near Masnières, France.

A doctor with the Grenfell Mission in Labrador, Harry Locke Paddon, apparently changed the Shiwaks’ surname arbitrarily from Sikoak, which means “relating to thin ice.” The Shiwak family lived at Cul-de-Sac, near Rigolet, at the narrows to Lake Melville. Little is known of the early years of John Shiwak Jr, but it may be assumed that, like his male peers, he learned the practical skills required for northern living, including use of the boat, dog-team, and rifle, and perfected his competence by hunting, fishing, and trapping. Swatching, or shooting seals in open water as they briefly exposed their heads to breathe, provided unparalleled training for a future military sharpshooter.

Information on Shiwak’s life comes largely from the accounts of novelist William Lacey Amy, who met Shiwak in August 1911 on the coastal steamer from St John’s to Rigolet. Shiwak had left home in 1901 to seek his fortune. He may have worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which operated a fur and salmon factory at Rigolet and seasonally employed many local workers, including John’s younger brothers Wilfred and William. Amy noted that John worked during the summer for a doctor (most likely Paddon) and that, for several winters prior to enlisting, he trapped. One year Shiwak trapped on the thirds, that is, he leased a trapline – the Groves Point trapline on Goose Bay from prominent settler-trapper John Groves – in exchange for one-third of the catch. His trapping during the winter of 1910–11 financed the trip on which he encountered Amy.

Following their meeting, the two corresponded regularly and Amy came to characterize the self-taught Shiwak as a natural artist and writer. According to Amy, Shiwak mentioned in his letters his desire to be a soldier. This ambition may have been kindled by his excursion (or excursions) to St John’s, by Harry Paddon’s patriotic zeal, or by his involvement with the Grand River or Mud Lake branches of the Legion of Frontiersmen, a British paramilitary corps founded in 1904 and established in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1911. After the outbreak of World War I, Shiwak’s enthusiasm enabled him to persuade two other local Inuit and a white man to enlist. Altogether, more than 60 Labrador men would serve in the war; Shiwak was one of five from the Lake Melville area to be killed.

Slight of build – he was five feet five inches in height and weighed 132 pounds – Shiwak enlisted on 24 July 1915 in St John’s in the Newfoundland Regiment. Following training in Scotland, he reached the front in France on 24 July 1916, three weeks after the regiment’s devastating losses at Beaumont-Hamel (Beaumont). During the next 15 months of hellish trench warfare, Shiwak would impress all as an exceptional scout and marksman. One officer would call him the best sniper in the British army; Shiwak’s actions in this difficult business earned him promotion to lance-corporal on 16 April 1917. In his letters, however, he confessed that he could not understand the steady killing. At least one card was sent from France to “My Dear Louisa,” of whom Shiwak thought “every Day even when I am in the line.” The recipient was almost certainly Louisa Flowers of Valley Bight on Lake Melville, whose mother opposed her engagement to Shiwak.

Shiwak’s background may explain his initial shyness with other soldiers. Eventually, however, he made friends, among them Newfoundlander Howard L. Morry, whose unpublished memoirs describe their relationship in France. Morry remembered “Johnny Shirvack” as “a sniper and a good one. He was shy and lonely but I got to be quite friendly with him by talking of seal hunting, etc. We’d talk for hours and often he’d say will it ever be over. He sure was a great shot and had a lot of notches on his rifle. He said sniping was like swatching seals.”

Shiwak’s final months were shrouded in despondency and loneliness, emotions that increased following the death of a close friend and former trapping companion, possibly William McKenzie of Rigolet. On 20 Nov. 1917 – one witness later recorded the 21st – Shiwak and six others were killed by an exploding shell during an attack on the village of Masnières, in the battle of Cambrai. Buried in the village, Shiwak received the British War and Victory medals.

— Text by John C. Kennedy

1816: The Year Without Summer

Historic PoW site in Ontario to get new lease on life

By NOOR JAVED News reporter ~

Sat., July 16, 2016


PoW camp savedThe derelict buildings of historic Camp 30, believed to be Canada’s only remaining prisoner of war camp from the Second World War, which were once feared unsalvageable, have emerged victorious against the test of time.

Earlier this month, the Town of Clarington announced it has approved a deal with developer Kaitlin Developments and Fandor Homes to acquire five hectares of the Camp 30 lands and some of the “historically significant” buildings on the property.

“This is a slice of history right in our backyard,” said Clarington Mayor Adrian Foster, in a press release. “Council would like to restore and rehabilitate the buildings which are historical landmarks in our community.”

Camp 30 was the only site used by the Allies to house captured, high-ranking Nazi officers. It is the only known intact camp for German prisoners of war left in the world.

Saving the property has long been a labour of love for local advocates and history buffs, who feared that after years of vandalism and neglect, the buildings were destined for the wrecking ball. Over time, windows have shattered, graffiti has covered the walls and the buildings, once considered architecturally unique, have started to crumble. Despite the site’s remarkable history, its future was always uncertain, said Corinna Traill, Clarington Ward 3 councillor.

“I grew up with Camp 30, knowing that we had this great historical site and basically seeing it go to ruin,” said Traill. “This is really a case that if the town hadn’t stepped in, this site would have been reduced to rubble.”

In the 1920s, 18 buildings were built on 40 hectares of rural land about 45 minutes east of Toronto, initially serving as a training school for “troubled” boys. But during the Second World War, the site was converted into a PoW camp to house high-ranking members of the Third Reich.

Among its most famous inhabitants were Otto Kretschmer, a skilled German U-boat commander, who was involved in a daring but ultimately unsuccessful escape attempt that was supposed to see him and three others tunnel their way to the east coast. The operation was foiled by guards and the carefully built tunnels were collapsed.

But the site’s layered history has been lost on many outside of Bowmanville.

Once the previous owners moved out in 2008, local residents and politicians started “to advocate for the site at every opportunity,” said Marilyn Morawetz, chair of the Jury Lands Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the conservation of historic lands and the creation of a long-term plan to preserve this property.

It was only in 2013, when the federal government designated Camp 30 a National Historic Site and it made it onto Heritage Canada’s Top 10 list of endangered sites, that it was nationally recognized. But until the property was in private hands, there was little the town or the foundation could do in terms of drumming up funds, said Devon Daniell, director of business development for developer Kaitlin Corporation.

When Katilin Corp. bought the land, they didn’t know its significance, he said. But over the last few years, they have been working with the town and foundation to find a way to preserve the buildings and the history, he said. That included talking to the developers of Toronto’s Distillery District in Toronto for inspiration and ideas.

The transfer of land is expected later this year. Before then, the developer will demolish the buildings that have not been identified for historic preservation. The town will be responsible for five of the original buildings, while the developer plans to convert one into a clubhouse to serve a future community.

The developer will also clean up the area, including removing the graffiti which is proving to be a difficult task, said Daniell.

“Despite our best efforts to preserve the site, you can’t stop these people who are motivated to damage it,” he said, adding that vandals have been relentless, spray painting over security cameras, knocking down fences and masonry walls with ATVs, he said.

Once the clean up takes place, the developer is to make a $500,000 donation to the town to assist with maintenance, he said.

The developer has plans for a housing development on some portions of the land. The five-hectare parcel is part of the developer’s mandatory parkland contribution to the town.

Town officials say while this deal is the first and most important step in securing this piece of Canadian history, the entire country should take ownership of the project.

“Redevelopment of these historical buildings cannot be on the backs of local taxpayers,” said Faye Langmaid, manager of special projects with the town. “This is a national project, with a national scope.”


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Interesting Toronto… Oldest neighbourhood

What is the oldest neighbourhood in Toronto?

Posted by Chris Bateman / AUGUST 1, 2015


 oldest neighbourhood torontoIn 1793, the little frontier town of York consisted of just 10 blocks: two rows of five stacked on top of each other between present day George, Front, Adelaide, and Berkeley streets. The entire city of Toronto grew from this tiny waterfront nucleus.

The original city is now firmly within the St. Lawrence neighbourhood. King St. east of Jarvis cuts right through the centre of the more than 200-year-old community.

toronto oldest neighbourhoodIn 1797, plans were made to extend the city to the north and west. Peter Russell, an administrator who succeeded town founder John Graves Simcoe, mapped out new roads west to Peter St. and north to Queen St. The extension included space for a market, court house, church and jail.

As historian Wendy Smith notes, the westward push was limited by an “ordnance boundary” located 1,000 feet east of Fort York. The canons that were meant to protect York from invasion needed a clear line of sight and so, at the time, nothing could be built closer to the military base.

Smith’s website, the Toronto Park Lot Project, maps the early boundaries of Toronto.

toronto oldest neighbourhoodThe allowance for a market spawned today’s St. Lawrence Market (the original allocation is currently occupied by St. Lawrence Hall) and the church block is now home to St. James Cathedral. The city’s first coffee shop was also located in the area, as was the first Upper Canada parliament buildings at Front and Berkeley.

The jail was built, too. It opened in 1798 with a small outdoor area for public executions. According to a plaque fixed to the outside of the King Edward Hotel, which now occupies the site, the first person hanged there was John Sullivan. He was convicted of stealing a forged bank note worth a dollar.

As the city grew, the original town blocks became part of the St. Lawrence Ward. The earliest community divisions were mostly named for the patron saints of the countries of the British Isles: St. George, St. Andrew, St. Patrick, and St. David.

St. Lawrence of Rome became associated with Canada when French explorer Jaques Cartier named the continent’s great eastern waterway after him in 1535.

The oldest buildings in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood date back to the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. On Front St., many of the historic former warehouses and factories turned storefronts were built in the 1870s and later, more than eight decades after the neighbourhood was established.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: Toronto Archives, Peter Russell map, Toronto Public Library, Ms1889.1.3.; Elizabeth Frances Hale watercolour, Library and Archives Canada, 1970-188-2092

Thornton Blackburn, Toronto’s first ‘cabbie’

The fascinating story of Toronto’s first cab company

Posted by Chris Bateman (

thornton blackburn toronto cab W.H. Coverdale

No Toronto history series would be complete without the astounding story of Thornton Blackburn, an escaped slave who made his way from Kentucky to Toronto via the Underground Railroad, helped settle others fleeing captivity, and established this city’s first horse-drawn cab company.

Blackburn’s unlikely story includes daring escapes from captivity, one of which sparked a riot in Detroit, tireless anti-slavery work, the construction of a city landmark and the establishment in Toronto of a service that’s become ubiquitous today.

In Louisville, Kentucky, in the early 1800s Thornton and his wife Lucie were owned and used in forced labour at the height of American slavery. Thornton’s mother, Sibby, was also a slave. Little is known about the Thornton and Lucie’s early life, and there are no known pictures of either.

What we do know is the pair escaped their owners around 1830 and headed north on a steamboat up the Mississippi, switching to a stagecoach to reach Detroit, Michigan, where they lived an uneasy two years as fugitives. The pair were located by slave hunters and jailed in the city while their return to the south could be arranged. Although Michigan was a free state, racial segregation still existed and it seems authorities were still willing to incarcerate those who escaped captivity.

mississippi steamer thornton blackburnWhile the couple were jailed, Thornton was bound, shackled, and isolated, but Lucie was allowed visitors, one of whom was Mrs. George French, a woman sympathetic to the Blackburn’s plight. During her visit, French bravely managed to swap clothes and places with Lucie and allow the wanted woman to simply walk out of jail and cross the Detroit River to Essex County in Upper Canada. Freeing Thornton would prove much more difficult, however.

The day before he was due to be returned to Kentucky, an angry crowd stormed the jail, overpowered the guards, and managed to release Blackburn. Two people, Sleepy Polly and Daddy Walker, integral to the escape plan, helped transport Thornton to Essex County to be reunited with his wife. In his wake, Thornton left a two-day race riot, the earliest of its kind in Detroit, that would lead to the first riot commission established in the US.

Settling in Toronto, Thornton Blackburn, though illiterate, found work as a waiter at Osgoode Hall while authorities in Michigan twice unsuccessfully applied for the Blackburn and his wife to be deported. It was while he worked that he became aware of the city’s lack of a cab company, a concept already established and profitable in Montreal.

toronto thornton blackburn cab cityWorking with plans for a horse-drawn cab from Quebec, like the one shown above, Thornton commissioned the construction of the first wooden four-seater taxi and founded the company to run it, which he named “The City.” The venture was successful and laid the groundwork for several other rival companies in Toronto.

The City’s first cab was painted bright yellow and red and is captured in John Gillespie’s oil painting of King Street, shown above. The Blackburns grew the cab company and kept a small stable for the working horses at their home at modern day Sackville Street and Eastern Avenue. Though busy with his work, Thornton successfully returned to Kentucky in secret some time in late 1830s to rescue his mother, Sibby, from slavery. Thornton’s brother, Alfred, also joined the family in Toronto.

An tireless advocate for the abolition of slavery, Thornton Blackburn helped build Little Trinity Anglican Church, attended the North American Convention of Colored Freemen at St. Lawrence Hall in September 1851, helped settle escaped slaves in Toronto and Buxton, Ontario and was a friend of fellow anti-slavery campaigner George Brown.

Thornton lived out the remainder of his life in Toronto and is buried in Necropolis Cemetery with his wife; his life and contribution to the abolition of slavery is commemorated by two historical markers, both at the former site of the couple’s home. Recently, the site, now Inglenook Community High School, was excavated and revealed portions of the house, shed and cellar. The Department of Canadian Heritage recognizes Thornton and Lucie Blackburn as Persons of National Historic Significance.