Monday, December 17, 2007

Poppy Objection Should Have Been Overruled

Judge's objection to the wearing of a poppy in court betrays lack of objectivity

A courtroom controversy that has been quietly brewing for the past couple of months recently became a little bit louder, as the fallout from an incident in a Kitchener, Ontario courtroom has hit the letters to the editor page of The National Post.

On October 31st, Justice Margaret Woolcott issued a stern lecture to Constable Dan Haines and defence lawyer Richard Prendiville. "I think that somehow I owe you something in training," she said. "I wouldn't wear my poppy to court."

"Because however much -- and I really probably should have said something to [Prendiville] too -- but however much you may think that's a totally acceptable symbol, and that it is totally neutral, that might not be entirely the case for everybody who comes to court," Woolcott suggested. "It represents a symbol of support and I suspect that 99.999 per cent of us happily wear it outside of the courtroom. You probably should not wear anything like that in court."

Woolcott is entirely wrong in taking this stance. Some people, however, seem to fail to understand why.

In a 14 December letter, Ted Doueck essentially suggests Marget Woolcott's decision to lecture a police officer testifying in an assault trial for wearing a poppy was a sound act of accomodation for the local Mennonite minority:

"In Waterloo County, Ont, where Justice Margaret Woolcott sits on the Ontario Court bench, there is a large Mennonite population, who have a long and worthy history of adherence to non-violence and peace-making and are opposed to war and killing. Among this group of loyal Canadian citizens (whom you have blithely labeled "hateful eccentrics") the wearing of a poppy is generally viewed as glorification of war and all it entails.

Mennonites understand very well the disasters and destruction that accompany war and aggression -- they historically experienced these disasters themselves, as the persecuted targets of governments who were unwilling to accept and respect their policies of non-resistance and nonviolence. I have no idea what Justice Woolcott's personal views may be on this issue, but I commend her for displaying sensitivity to the fact that there are legitimate, alternate views in our society about the efficacy of war and violence in solving human problems. This opinion does not minimize the tragic loss of lives experienced in war but rejects the implicit endorsement of violence and military struggle which the poppy signifies.

Justice Woolcott recognized that wearing a poppy in a courtroom is essentially a political statement, made by a police constable whose line of work also entails the potential use of force and violence to uphold the law. Not all Canadians feel comfortable with that political view, nor should they, as she correctly pointed out to the officer in question.
In short, Dueck argues that it's acceptable to chide the officer in question because some people don't agree with the poppy as a symbol. In particular Mennonites, he argues, understand this as well as anyone due to the past persecutions they've suffered.

The irony that some of history's worst persecutions were ended only through war may be lost on him. This is precisley the point raised in a response written by Calgary's Alexander MacKay:

"As a surviving combat infantryman of two terrible wars I am deeply offended by letter-writer Ted Dueck's assertions that the poppy stands for war, that its wearing is viewed as "glorification of war" and that it signifies an "endorsement of violence."

In my service I never met any combat soldier who glorified war. Indeed it was universally reviled but accepted as a necessary alternative to more horrible consequences.

Undeniably all war is horrible, but the Second World War came about largely because we, the Western democracies, wanted peace too much. So craven did we become in seeking peace that we not only sold other innocent countries (e.g. Czechoslovakia) into slavery but we shunned facing war when it could have been resolved with minimum bloodshed -- instead of paying the eventual butcher's bill of 60 million lives.

Those who reject all war should reflect on Korea. There, the intervention of the willing, including Canada at a cost of more than 500 lives, prevented South Korea from suffering the terrible fate of its northern brethren. Today, South Korea is a vibrant modern society with boundless opportunities for its youth. Would Mr. Dueck have preferred that our sacrifices not have been made for them? Does he applaud the results of our failure to intervene in Rwanda, Cambodia and Darfur?

Mr. Dueck and Margaret Woolcott, the Ontario Court Justice who berated a police officer for wearing a poppy in her courtroom, are disingenuous in attempting to affix their own pejorative meanings to a symbol that was solely intended to commemorate, and grieve for, those brave individuals who gave their lives so that others, including those who revile them, may live their lives in peace and security.
In another letter, Victoria's Michael Ross takes issue with Dueck and Woolcott's treatment of the poppy as a symbol:

"Apparently letter writer Ted Dueck's and Madame Justice Woolcott attended the same revisionist history classes. The poppy is not a symbol of war any more than a judge's robes are a symbol of unquestionable Solomonian wisdom. The poppy is purely and simply put, a symbol of remembrance. The reason it is worn by policemen across Canada is not to make a "political statement;" but to show that they remember those Canadians who made the ultimate sacrifice and laid down their lives for their country. When my great-grandfather and my grandfather volunteered to fight tyranny overseas as proud members of the Canadian army, they fought so that all Canadians -- including Mennonites, Ontario Justices, and the residents of Waterloo -- could live in peace, freedom, and security.

I salute and thank the policemen across this nation who don the poppy to honour and remember the deeds of our fathers. The only political statement here is that of the Judge. I would think that she has more important issues to contend with in her court than hectoring policemen around Remembrance Day.
Ross is precisely right. If anyone involved in this unfortunate incident has used the courtroom as a forum for a political statement, it certainly wasn't Haines or Prendiville. It was Woolcott herself.

Whether in the name of an objection to the symbolism behind the poppy, or as a form of accomodation to those who don't agree with it, Woolcott's suggestion that the poppy -- worn in remembrance of those who died fighting to defend the country our justice system is supposed to represent -- is explicitly a political statement. It represents, at best, an accomodationists' insistence that the opinion of .001% (by her own estimation) should somehow count for more than that of the remaining 99.999%. The suggestion that a police officer can't wear a poppy in remembrance of those who gave up their lives so that we may have, among other things, our legal system is nothing short of a national embarrassment.

The suggestion that he can't do so because someone, somewhere might object to it is implicitly silly, and has no place in a court of law.

In the end, what Woolcott's objection reveals is her own lack of objectivity. She has demonstrated a noted inability to accept that while some people may interpret the poppy in ways other than that intended (and Ted Dueck's letter stands as proof of that), that is simply part of life in a democracy. In a democracy, where we enjoy freedom of speech, we're allowed to make statements that may risk offending someone. This freedom makes us obligated to face the consequences for such statements, but we have that freedom nonetheless.

Case in point: in her attempt to avoid offending the small number of people who see the poppy as a celebration of war, Woolcott has offended a great many more.

The damage she has done to her own reputation, and the reputation of her court, is a consequence she'll have to accept.


  1. This so called Judge has not idea of Canadian History or how Canadians feel. To chantise an Officer of the Law in a courtroom was totally wrong and out of line. If she had something to say to the Officer, she should have told him on the side. But, to state that poppies cannot be worn in her courtroom, is really wrong. She should appoligize and step down from her high throne, where she thinks she is doing right. A slap on the wrist of most criminals is not the appropriate action to take and she should know this. I guess she does not know a lot about the law and should get some retraining herself, as she hinted to the Officer. I do believe we should all wear poppies into her courtroom to show that we care and understand the meaning of them. After all, Remembrance does not only come in November, we should remember all year long of those who have died serving our country and those who have served and are serving to keep the world a better place to live. I AM CANADIAN!

  2. I don't really agree that she should resign over this issue. I don't think it's quite that serious.

    However, I do think she should back off. Even perceptions that members of the judiciary are using the courtroom to further a political agenda are damaging.

    While the examples of this actually happening really are rather slim, our democracy is damaged when people start to believe our courtrooms are nothing more than a political tool.


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