Exploring remembrance “In Flanders Fields @ 100”

Every year in November, Canadians remember the fallen soldiers who bravely fought for something greater than themselves. Part of this somber celebration is something that has become ingrained not only in Canadian culture, but culture around the world — the poem In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae, a Canadian soldier in the First World War.

For the poem’s 100-year anniversary, students from Ryerson’s ENG 907 capstone course will present “In Flanders Fields @ 100,” a student-run symposium and exhibition on Nov. 30, which is also McCrae’s birthday.

The symposium aims to act as a space for the public to weigh in on the growing discussion of In Flanders Fields, inviting people to be more active in their understanding of the poem.

The class of 16 students will present their findings to the public, the results of which are a culmination of three months of research and discussion. The exhibition deals with topics like contrasting opinions about the poem and even the connotations of the use of the poppy as a symbol, which is one of the poem’s most significant cultural contributions.

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“It’s been a really cool, fun project. You don’t get a lot of projects where you’re actually passionate about them,” said David Smyth, a fourth-year student involved with the exhibition.

Smyth, who described himself as a jack-of-all-trades throughout the exhibit’s production, helped with grant work to secure funds for the projects. He also originated correspondence with the McCrae House, with whom the event is partnered. He says the McCrae House was happy to help and has lent a number of historical artifacts for use in the event.

Smyth, who was originally attracted to the course because of his interest in the First World War, says it helped rejuvenate his understanding of In Flanders Fields.

“[Remembrance Day] was part of a really somber experience that I thought, as a young Canadian, was important for me. But I didn’t really think about why it was important for me,” said Smyth. “It’s more meaningful because I know the criticisms that surround it, and then I’m an active part in that conversation now, whereas before, I was really passive with it.”

This passive attitude towards the poem, mostly caused by its repetition year after year, is something that Smyth feels is problematic. He says the poem is often taught without question, out of fear that one may come across as anti-Canada. Smyth hopes that the symposium will break down these barriers and help stir up discussion — positive or negative.

Discussion around In Flanders Fields and the poppy has become increasingly relevant as conflict rages around the world. There has been an influx of poppy resistors in recent years, resulting in a broader discussion of the practice and its meaning.

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“I chose to focus the capstone course on In Flanders Fields because it is a poem that allows us to delve deeply into highly relevant issues of war and peace,” said Prof. Irene Gammel, director of the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre, in an email. “It’s iconic in Canada’s commemoration of the war dead … At the same time, the poem has been criticized for its powerful rhetoric in recruiting soldiers into a brutal war of attrition where they were used as cannon fodder by both sides.”

The event will take place at the MLC Gallery on Nov. 30 from 4 to 8 p.m. It is open to the public, but an RSVP is required. Those interested can also follow the exhibition’s Twitter @Flanders_100 to continue the conversation after the event.

Photos by Anders Marshall