One week ago today, during the annual Remembrance Day ceremony on McGill’s campus, Demilitarize McGill, a group opposed to military research at the university, staged a silent protest.They held signs noting various facts that shed an unflattering light on the Canadian military and recent military operations—an attempt to disrupt what they saw as the narrative of “selective memory” implied by the ceremony. The protest stirred pointed controversy and many angered responses on social media. This episode has echoed other debates about Remembrance Day, such as the perennial back and forth over the white poppy campaign—regarded as an appeal for peace by its supporters and disrespectful by detractors—and even previous protests by Demilitarize at the McGill ceremonies. However, the reaction triggered by this week’s events, which reached past current McGill students to alumni, was particularly fierce. While there is reasonable disagreement about what the message of Remembrance Day is and whether the protest was in ‘good taste,’ there was a profound degree of incivility on both sides of the ensuing debate, as well as a seeming disregard for the right of the protesters to gather in that space.
The meaning of Remembrance Day is and has been hotly debated for years; a major element of Demilitarize’s rationale for protesting at the McGill ceremony this year—as well as at previous ceremonies—was the idea that the day functions as a glorification of not only the military itself, but acts as an instrument of legitimating the inherently illegitimate projection of power across the world by Canada and the west as a whole.
“Calls for ‘respect’ and ‘tastefulness’ are a tool for the suppression of dissent at a moment when the enforcement of Canadian patriotism requires the appearance of consensus,” Demilitarize McGill’s statement regarding the protest reads. “McGill’s Remembrance Day ceremony is in no way respectful to the people killed, injured, and terrorized by the violence of the Canadian state. The parading of troops on campus and military choppers overhead leave no room for respect for anyone targeted by Canadian military force.”
This understanding of Remembrance Day, however, is arguably its own practice in ‘selective memory.’ To view a holiday that is explicitly designed to remember and memorialize the fallen—the most direct embodiment of the toll military conflict takes on people, countries, and civilians—as a pure glorification of warfare is, at best, a straw man. There is a fundamental difference between the commemoration of the sacrifice of an individual or a group a soldiers and a blanket justification of the policy and intervention decisions that contributed to their deaths. While there is a ‘political’ message in Remembrance Day ceremonies—to the extent that any event that touches upon the military and historical memory is political–the message is cautionary. The very idea of the ceremony, through the enforced solemnity and silence, is to underscore the gravity of war.
With all that said, much of the backlash that has emerged in the wake of the protest was profoundly disrespectful to both the constitutionally protected rights of the protesters and the legitimate points they were bringing to the table, such as their questioning of military policy making. A major thread in the criticisms of the Demilitarize McGill protesters was that they constituted some sort of blasphemous shame or disgrace to the university, or that they were making a mockery of those who had fought for their freedoms. As it were, the right to make controversial, perhaps unpopular, and potentially uncomfortable arguments in the public sphere is the raison d’être of free speech protections. This idea that using these rights to engage in a protest that some may find distasteful is a negative use of such liberties should be dismissed immediately, and the idea that they should be ‘punished’ or ‘disciplined,’ as some students have claimed on social media, further so. To the extent that the protesters met the basic standards of decorum at the ceremony—they were silent and simply holding signs—they had a right to be there. Again, there is a real debate as to whether their presence was in ‘good taste,’ but not to the question of whether it should be sanctioned.
Controversies over Remembrance Day and the message it may convey are a dime a dozen. However, as students look back at these protests, they would do well to take some time to remember what we are actually angry about. This idea that veterans, war, and the dead of conflict exist in some sort of ‘sacred’ apolitical ground beyond reproach or questioning is one that leads down a dangerous road of blind glorification of the military. In our quest to pay respects to those who have died in the name of this country—if not always in conflicts with the sharpest of moral clarity—we must also remember to not lose sight of the freedoms we value, including the right to question and challenge the decisions of the government.