‘Numbers are turning’
Dwindling legions changing to draw in younger vets
In the heart of Saskatchewan’s capital, the 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 the province’s military stories. Its doors are open to any vet 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. About half of the legion’s 270,000 members are 65 or over — a statistic that’s taking a toll on everything from filling poppy campaign shifts to paying the rent.
Ronn Anderson, president of the Manitoba and Northwest Ontario command, said the issue affects 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 vets.
“The bottom line here is the modern-day veteran doesn’t like the older facilities,” Irvine said.
“Playing shuffleboard (is) not really the modern-day family activity they want to get into.”
While membership is still 75% 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.
He’s optimistic that efforts to modernize are working, even if change is slow. Irvine said the number of membership losses in 2018 is notably lower than previous years.
“The word’s getting out there that we are changing. The numbers are turning,” Irvine said.
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.
“You’re going to lose a lot, besides the fact that there wouldn’t be the places then for the veterans to turn to,” operations manager Jody Hoffman said.
“They need help and we want to help them.”
Veterans Bernard Roy, Mike Fehr and Darcy Halladay chat at the Royal Canadian Legion, St. James Branch No. 4, in Winnipeg.