Guardians of Remembrance

The Casket - - Local - MILLICENT MCKAY com­mu­ni­ties@her­ald.ca

Ser­vice. Com­rade­ship. Unity.

These three words in­spired the cre­ation of the Royal Cana­dian Le­gion.

Af­ter a time of war, vet­er­ans felt vul­ner­a­ble and be­lieved they needed one strong, un­di­vided voice among all vet­eran or­ga­ni­za­tions in Canada.

Years be­fore the for­ma­tion of the le­gions, Cana­dian vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies were rep­re­sented by sev­eral small groups, in­clud­ing the army and navy.

In 1917, the Great War Vet­er­ans As­so­ci­a­tion (GWVA) was formed. While it acted as a larger, stronger voice, about 15 small groups and a hand­ful of reg­i­men­tal as­so­ci­a­tions span­ning the coun­try still ex­isted.

In the mid-1920s, the GWVA was fac­ing in­ter­nal dis­rup­tions as well as is­sues plagu­ing mod­ern le­gions – de­clin­ing mem­ber­ship and com­pet­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions.

In 1925, Mar­shall Earl Haig, co-founder of the Bri­tish Em­pire Ser­vice League (BESL), en­cour­aged Cana­dian vet­er­ans to unite un­der one or­ga­ni­za­tion. That same year, the GWVA and other groups met in Win­nipeg, Man., and de­cided to amal­ga­mate into the Cana­dian Le­gion, un­der the um­brella of the BESL.

"At this time, there were about 18 or­ga­ni­za­tions that de­cided to come to­gether," said Brad White, na­tional ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Do­min­ion Com­mand.

The year 1926 marked the of­fi­cial birth of the le­gion with about 20,000 vet­er­ans, White ex­plained.

In the fol­low­ing years, the le­gion grew, help­ing vet­er­ans through the hard fi­nan­cial times of the Great De­pres­sion. It also ad­vo­cated for im­proved pen­sions and health ben­e­fits from the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment.

Sec­ond World War

Dur­ing and af­ter the Sec­ond World War, the le­gion grew quickly, with a mas­sive in­flux of young and new vet­er­ans. Dur­ing that time, it pro­vided var­i­ous pro­grams, like en­ter­tain­ment and can­teen ser­vices, in Canada and over­seas.

"When the sec­ond war be­gan, there was an­other flurry of or­ga­ni­za­tions look­ing to ad­vo­cate on be­half of vet­er­ans. The same thing is hap­pen­ing to­day, with groups form­ing af­ter com­ing home from the Afghanistan con­flict," White con­tin­ued.

It’s noth­ing new in the vet­eran com­mu­nity that or­ga­ni­za­tions come and go, he said.

When the war ended, more than one mil­lion Cana­di­ans re­turned home and the le­gion helped vet­er­ans rein­te­grate into ev­ery­day life, as well as pro­vid­ing ad­vice on gov­ern­ment ben­e­fits.

They ad­vo­cated for the Vet­er­ans' Char­ter – a set of laws that cre­ated new ser­vice for vet­er­ans, in­clud­ing busi­ness and uni­ver­sitylevel train­ing, land grants for farm­ing, low-cost hous­ing and dis­abil­ity pen­sions.

In 1960, the name of the le­gion was changed to the Royal Cana­dian Le­gion with the Queen’s per­mis­sion.

To­day’s le­gion

To­day, each prov­ince and ter­ri­tory is or­ga­nized with a provin­cial com­mand, fall­ing un­der the na­tional do­min­ion head­quar­ters in Ot­tawa. The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s man­date has not changed; its role is still to sup­port vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies, ad­vo­cate on their be­half and act as a united voice for their con­cerns and is­sues.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion is mainly funded by mem­ber­ship fees, which vary from lo­ca­tion to lo­ca­tion. In ad­di­tion, there are also na­tional and in­di­vid­ual fundrais­ers, like the Poppy Cam­paign from the end of Oc­to­ber to Nov. 11, as well as events like weekly chase the ace games.

There are about 1,400 branches across the coun­try, with mem­ber­ship to­talling about 175,000 in 2018. When mem­ber­ship was at its peak, there were more than 600,000 le­gion mem­bers in the mid-1980s.

To com­bat the prob­lem of dwin­dling mem­ber­ship, the Royal Cana­dian Le­gion opened its doors to as­so­ciate mem­bers - par­ents, spouses, children, grand­chil­dren, sib­lings, nieces and neph­ews of vet­er­ans - and af­fil­i­ate mem­bers (ci­ti­zens who do not have a fa­mil­ial tie to a vet­eran).

Royal Cana­dian Le­gion or­di­nary mem­ber­ship in­cludes still serv­ing and re­tired mil­i­tary, re­servists, RCMP, po­lice of­fi­cers, Cana­dian Coast Guard and oth­ers listed in the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s gen­eral by­laws.

White says the de­mo­graphic is di­vided, with about 25-30 per cent com­prised of ex-mil­i­tary, 40 to 45 per cent fam­ily mem­bers of vet­er­ans and the rest be­ing or­di­nary Cana­di­ans who be­lieve in the le­gion’s man­date.

"We’re not the old or­ga­ni­za­tion. Our pur­pose is still the same, but through our evo­lu­tion, we also be­came the corner­stone of a lot of Cana­dian com­mu­ni­ties. We’re where the com­mu­nity meets, greets and mourns and that’s what it’s all about."

White says there is no doubt the or­ga­ni­za­tion needs to con­tinue to change and adapt.

Cur­rently, there is an ef­fort to get Afghanistan and late-cold

War vet­er­ans in­volved in the Le­gion.

"I call it vet­er­ans help­ing vet­er­ans," said White. "We have a lot of very young Afghanistan vet­er­ans that are out there who have now turned back to the Le­gion and said they need to get in­volved and en­gaged."

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