Legion standing the test of time
With more than 100 legion branches in Nova Scotia, the organization has managed to stand the test of time.
“It’s certainly evolved over the last 92 years,” said Steve Wessell, the immediate past president of the Nova Scotia Provincial Command.
Wessell is the son of a Second World War veteran. It’s the connection that led to his legion career 43 years ago.
“It’s something I’ve seen evolve over the years. I’ve seen many, many of my old comrades of the Second World War pass away and have passed the torch onto people like myself. I used to consider myself the young guy of the group and had help from the older vets that were involved in my legion and the command. Now they’ve passed that onto me and I’m one of the older guys who’s trying to pass it on to the younger people that are coming forward.”
But there are some legions that have thrived more than others.
“There are many rural legions that have been around for a long time. My branch in particular, No. 160, has been around (since) 1967, Centennial Branch.”
The province’s Middleton Branch No. 1 is the oldest.
But unlike P.E.I., where rural branches seem to be the ones thriving, being rural is having an opposite effect on Nova Scotia branches.
“The rural areas have a tendency to suffer a bit more than the city branches due to the fact that there isn’t as great a population. But there are some that still continue to be successful. In the smaller towns, where one is only a few miles away from the other, there is quite a competition.”
He says there have been a number of closures over the years.
“And it’s due mainly to attrition within the area. I mean we’ve had some small towns and villages that have had to give up their charter, so to speak, because they can’t survive. Some have folded due to a lack of membership, whether that be from new members or veterans that have grown old and passed away. We’ve also had some close due to financial reasons over the years.”
Wessell says the province’s membership numbers are mainly made up of civilians (affiliates and associates).
“There’s also a strong-still serving Canadian forces member base. And because Royal Canadian Legion membership is open to all Canadians we have more associate members (family members of an armed forces personnel or vet) than veteran members.”
He says opening membership was an effort to keep numbers up while recognizing if there was someone who wanted to be part of the community and help the veteran population there was no reason they shouldn’t be able to.
It’s important the legion grows, he added.
“The legion has to change its attitude towards itself and the way we treat our veterans in order to progress into the future. And we’re doing that through centralizing our focus on younger veterans – those who have fought and served recently, especially those that are returning from overseas now.”
While he expects there may be more legions lost, the ones that remain will continue to be strong in their community.
“The legion has always been a focal point of many small towns. And I can’t see the day when a Royal Canadian Legion won’t be around.”
In Nova Scotia, branches have prided themselves on the supports they’ve provided to veterans.
In Nova Scotia, it has developed veterans’ outreach programs.
“Helping those vets is crucial to the survival of legions in Nova Scotia … we have therapeutic painting classes we’ve started up. Fly tying programs that are developed and are partnered with Pawz Fur Thought for PTSD service dogs that we developed here in Nova Scotia … We have over 115 veterans partnered with PTSD service dogs across Canada.”
The program was started by Medric Cousineau, a retired Seaking navigator and Star of Courage recipient.
Mental health is an important conversation on the table right now.
“It is a topic that is discussed around the legion. It is a requirement. Unfortunately, the Canadian government is turning a blind eye to it right now … we’re trying as hard as we can to make the federal government understand that the Royal Canadian Legion, a non-profit organization, gives back millions of dollars over the run of a year to assist the veterans.”
Changing topics, Wessell says the remembrance campaigns in Nova Scotia, like the poppy campaign is very vibrant.
“I’ve found the general public of Nova Scotia to be very receptive. They give quite generously. They’re also very receptive to the services at the cenotaphs across the province. The crowds have been very large over the last 10 to 15 years and growing due to our involvement with the children through cadets, Girl Guides, Cubs and Scouts and programs of sending vets to schools to talk to kids and teach them and keep remembrance alive in our younger generations. If not for the Royal Canadian Legion, who else would be doing it? The legion has a job to do.”