Those poppies we wear for Remembrance Day? Without the incredible work of Lillian Freiman, we would only read about them in John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Field.”
Freiman helped found the Royal Canadian Legion and was its first female honourary lifemember. She held leadership roles in the Canadian Institue for the Blind, the Red Cross Society, Canadian Hadassah-WIZO, the Amputations Association of Great War Veterans of Canada, the Salvation Army, Girl Guides of Canada, the Big Sister’s Association, the YMCA, the Joan of Arc Society, and more. The Mayor of Ottawa selected her to organize a 1500-volunteer relief effort during the flu epidemic of 1918. Lillian Freiman was the first Jewish-Canadian honoured as an officer of the Order of the British Empire; King George V presented it to her on New Year’s Day, 1934, for her work with war veterans.
In 1921, the first Canadian poppies were made in her living room; she had helped to establish the Vetcraft Shops, where returning servicemen made furniture and toys in 1919, and in 1923 the Vetcraft Shops took over the poppy-making.
At her funeral in 1940, red poppies covered her coffin and a Royal Canadian Legion honour guard attended (as did Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, innumerable luminaries of the day, and many of the 151 Ukrainian war orphans she had rescued).
On December 29, 1941 Major-General L.F. LaFleche, Associate Deputy Minister of National War Services, unveiled a tablet at Trafalgar House inscribed: “In loving memory and to the honour of Mrs. A.J. (Lillian) Freiman, OBE, national officer and general convener in Ottawa of Canadian Legion Poppy Day. The friend of all soldiers and dependents who, in public and in private gave generous, warm-hearted and always effectual service and assistance in their cause from the days of 1914-18 to the day of her passing November 2nd, 1940.”
Any military officer or guest is welcome in her home to this day – it is now the Army Officers’ Mess in Ottawa.
As you wear your poppy, remember the dreams and sacrifices of those who did and do serve in the Canadian Armed Forces, as well as the vision, generosity, and accomplishments of one Jewish woman, Lillian Freiman, OBE. And thank a Jewish mother.