Le­gions hope to halt de­cline

The Sudbury Star - - NATIONAL NEWS - HOLLY MCKEN­ZIE-SUTTER

In the heart of down­town Regina, Royal Cana­dian Le­gion’s Regina Branch 001 has pro­vided com­mu­nal space for Cana­dian mil­i­tary vet­er­ans since it was first char­tered in 1926.

To­day, it hosts a mu­seum for Saskatchewan’s mil­i­tary sto­ries and its doors are open to any vet­eran strug­gling to file pa­per­work, find proper med­i­cal help or even tem­po­rary hous­ing when times are tough.

The le­gion pro­vides free, es­sen­tial walk-in ser­vices for vet­er­ans in Regina — and yet, the branch had to start a Go­FundMe cam­paign last month to scrape to­gether enough money to stay open.

Branch 001’s story is not unique. Most mem­bers served in the Sec­ond World War and the Korean War. Many have now passed away, and it’s an on­go­ing chal­lenge to keep the space open.

Across the coun­try, Royal Cana­dian Le­gion branches are fac­ing the re­al­i­ties that come with ag­ing mem­ber de­mo­graph­ics.

About half of the le­gion’s 270,000 mem­bers are aged 65 or over — a statis­tic that’s tak­ing a toll on ev­ery­thing from fill­ing poppy cam­paign shifts to pay­ing the monthly rent.

Ronn An­der­son, pres­i­dent of the Man­i­toba and North­west On­tario com­mand, said it’s an is­sue af­fect­ing city and ru­ral branches alike, with clo­sures in small towns and big ci­ties like Win­nipeg.

“We are hav­ing a prob­lem within the Royal Cana­dian Le­gion with our ag­ing pop­u­la­tion,” An­der­son said.

“We’re get­ting some younger peo­ple in but not enough to keep our num­bers up, and there are some branches that find them­selves in fi­nan­cial dif­fi­culty be­cause they’re not get­ting the pa­tron­age they need to re­main open.”

Thomas D. Irvine, the le­gion’s do­min­ion pres­i­dent, said Do­min­ion Com­mand in Ot­tawa is try­ing to tackle the is­sue by mod­ern­iz­ing older spa­ces and reach­ing out to younger vet­er­ans who may not think the le­gion is for them.

“The bot­tom line here is the mod­ern-day vet­eran doesn’t like the older fa­cil­i­ties, they want mod­ern things, they want some­thing to be able to walk into, for their fam­i­lies to do, to get in­volved in,” Irvine said.

“Play­ing shuf­fle­board (is) not re­ally the mod­ern day fam­ily ac­tiv­ity they want to get into.”

The na­ture of the le­gion as a gath­er­ing place has also changed over the years, said Irvine.

In ear­lier con­flicts, sol­diers from the same town would go to war and come back home to­gether, mak­ing the le­gion a log­i­cal gath­er­ing space.

Now, Irvine says, it’s of­ten one per­son from a town who joins the mil­i­tary alone and re­turns home with his or her col­leagues spread out across the coun­try.

That’s why Irvine is try­ing to pro­mote in­stalling in­ter­net at lo­cal branches to make it eas­ier for vet­er­ans to keep in touch with their friends. Other mod­ern­iza­tion ini­tia­tives in­clude pro­mot­ing on­line sign-ups and game rooms for kids.

While mem­ber­ship is still 75-per-cent vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies, any Cana­dian is now able to be­come a mem­ber — but Irvine stressed that a vet­eran does not need to be a mem­ber to walk into a le­gion for help at any time.

And he’s op­ti­mistic that the ef­forts to mod­ern­ize the le­gion are work­ing, even if change is slow. Irvine said so far in 2018, the num­ber of mem­ber­ship losses is sig­nif­i­cantly lower than in pre­vi­ous years.

“The word’s get­ting out there that we are chang­ing. The num­bers are turn­ing,” Irvine said.

But in the mean­time, it’s hard to keep track of which branches are be­ing hit the hard­est by dwin­dling mem­ber­ship. Irvine said Do­min­ion Com­mand of­ten hears the sto­ries on the news, as they don’t re­port to Do­min­ion Com­mand.

One such story came out of branch 56 in St. John’s, N.L., this fall. A call for vol­un­teers went out when 250 shifts to fill for the branch’s an­nual poppy cam­paign needed to be filled.

The cam­paign was a suc­cess, fill­ing all but seven shifts. But branch pres­i­dent Doug McCarthy said it’s a re­cur­ring pat­tern, and he has heard sim­i­lar sto­ries from nearby branches cut­ting back on poppy cam­paign shifts.

At one point, McCarthy says he was one of the youngest mem­bers of his branch — while he was in his 60s.

“Ev­ery year we strug­gle to find suf­fi­cient vol­un­teers to man all our lo­ca­tions,” McCarthy said.

“It’s an age thing. As the le­gion mem­bers get older, it’s more dif­fi­cult for them to get out and get around.”

For places like the Regina Branch 001, keep­ing the build­ing open is tied to mak­ing es­sen­tial ser­vices avail­able.

Los­ing the abil­ity to pay rent would mean clos­ing the place where vet­er­ans can go when they’re strug­gling with ad­dic­tion, phys­i­cal and men­tal health chal­lenges or even af­ford­ing a bus ticket home.

“You’re go­ing to lose a lot, be­sides the fact that there wouldn’t be the places then for the vet­er­ans to turn to,” said op­er­a­tions man­ager Jody Hoff­man.

“They need help and we want to help them. So it’s very im­por­tant that we stay open and keep our doors open and stay sus­tain­able so we can con­tinue to help them any way we can.”

Hoff­man’s branch is work­ing hard to stay open, like so many oth­ers across the coun­try.

For some smaller branches, the fi­nan­cial hit from ag­ing mem­ber­ship has led to some tough de­ci­sions.

In Ste. Anne, Man., this year’s poppy drive will be the last put on by le­gion Branch 220, af­ter 70 ac­tive years.

The branch had to sell its venue about a decade ago, so mak­ing money from rent­ing the space was no longer an op­tion.

Mem­ber­ship has dwin­dled to 14 peo­ple, with meet­ings tak­ing place at dif­fer­ent res­i­dences.

The mem­bers voted close the branch this year, leav­ing the fu­ture of poppy drives and Re­mem­brance ser­vices in the town un­known.

“It’s a lit­tle bit heart­break­ing, but there’s other le­gions, too, that are hav­ing prob­lems,” said branch pres­i­dent Mar­tin Gabbs, a 35-year mem­ber.

“It’s go­ing to be missed.”

JOHN WOODS/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Vet­er­ans, from left, Bernard Roy, 37 years ser­vice, Mike Fehr, 33 years ser­vice and Darcy Hal­la­day, 34 years ser­vice, chat at The Royal Cana­dian Le­gion, St. James Branch No. 4 in Win­nipeg, Man., on Thurs­day. Le­gions across Canada are fac­ing fund­ing chal­lenges and vol­un­teer short­ages be­cause of ag­ing mem­ber de­mo­graph­ics.

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