Pictou County’s legions face their toughest battle yet as membership declines, expenses rise

John Brannen
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The flags are back in their cases, the wreaths back in their boxes and surplus poppies put away until next year.

Bill White, Royal Canadian Legion Zone 6 commander of the Nova Scotia/Nunavut command and district deputy commander sits at Branch 28 in Stellarton. A veteran with 12 years of military service, he believes that young people with new ideas are needed if Pictou County’s legions are to survive. JOHN BRANNEN – THE NEWS

It’s been almost three weeks since Remembrance Day, when legions are abuzz with activity. Whether it’s preparing for parades, sharing a drink with a fellow comrade or pausing to reflect, the legion and its buildings in the county play a crucial role in remembrance.

But it doesn’t take long to get an idea of just what the membership of our legions looks like. Greying hair, walkers and wheelchairs and thick glasses and hearing aids are commonplace.

If the legion represents the torch that Lt.-Col. John McCrae referred to in his iconic First World War poem ‘In Flanders Fields,’ the flame may grow dim, and soon.

 

Guardians of Remembrance

 

The Royal Canadian Legion was founded in 1925 after hundreds of thousands of WWI vets tried to return to normalcy in Canada. After WWII and the Korean War, membership expanded rapidly with a seemingly endless supply of veterans.

Nearly 90 years later, there are no more WWI veterans and the average age of WWII vets in Canada is 89.

Legion membership has dropped 36 per cent to 388,584 in 2006 from a peak of 602,489 in 1984, according to Legion Magazine.

“The Legion is just as important today as it was back then,” said Gordon Moore, dominion president of the Royal Canadian Legion. “Our community service, youth programs, and most importantly, support for our veterans and the cause of remembrance will always have a role in Canadian society.”

While it’s been tough to face, Moore said the Legion is ready to change and modernize to adapt to the 21st century.

Legion buildings and halls, built when WWII vets were young men, are starting to show their age as well. Coupled with rising heating and maintenance costs, tough decisions are becoming commonplace.

“In some cases, members aren’t able to maintain buildings,” said Moore. “With declining membership and rising costs, now is the time to downsize, amalgamate or close.”

The latter option is one of the hardest situations that a Legion member can endure.

“It’s disappointing when a Legion closes,” said Moore. “It’s a sad process and we work with the branch to ensure the remaining members can find a home.”

 

Pictou County’s Legions

 

Branch closures aren’t new to the county, nor have the towns and River John been insulated from declining membership. There were once eight legions in the county; now there are six after the closing of Eureka and Hopewell.

Bill White is the Zone 6 commander of the Nova Scotia/Nunavut command and district deputy commander. He said more people with new ideas are needed.

“Some legions in the county are trying with different things, like a night for the college people in Stellarton, for example,” he said. “The big thing is to have it so that young people are interested because were losing people all the time.”

He noted there are approximately 1,800 legion members in the county with losses higher than new members gained.

“If things don’t change, we’ve got to look at the possibility there are simply too many branches in Pictou County. Some will need to amalgamate because we’re even cutting back on hours,” White said. “It costs a lot to heat a legion when you’re not making a lot of money.”

He noted legion supporters such as a ladies auxiliary have come to be almost non-existent as volunteers’ ages, sometimes in the 80s, increase.

 

Across the causeway

 

Bill Echlin of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 16 in Pictou knows firsthand that new ideas, recruiting and a little tough love can start to turn a legion around.

“We’re holding our own,” he said. “We lost about ten this year but gained at least that many. Stagnant but stable.”

Branch 16 received its charter in 1927, back when many considered it an old boys club where war stories were shared and drinks were plenty and free-flowing.

It’s a misconception that continues to this day.

“We’re trying to shake that image. The big thing is people think you have to be or been in the military to join. It’s simply not the case,” said Echlin.

There are three levels of membership: ordinary for current or former military or cadets; associate, with a relative who was in or is currently in the military; and affiliate for anyone else interested.

Pictou Legion holds a preteen dance on Friday nights, hosts birthday parties, wedding showers, dart league and an open mike night with Allan MacKenzie.

“My concept is reaching out to the public,” said Echlin. “But our number one priority is still the vets.”

 

Remembering or stuck in the past?

 

Change doesn’t always come easy. In fact, some legion members are opposed or apathetic to anything other than the status quo.

“When it comes down to it, about 35 per cent of legions in Canada are doing well, with fantastic ideas,” said Moore. “It’s the rest I’m worried about. There are a lot of personalities and politics in play.”

He noted that some in charge might not have the leadership or foresight to see the need for change to survive. In some cases, the membership may be holding a leader back.

“Some are closing because they cant get co-operation, that’s the trouble we have,” said White. “People complain but they don’t do anything nor do they attend meetings.”

 

The torch still burns

 

Despite this, there is a little light at the end of the tunnel.

White noted that despite membership declining in the legions, Remembrance Day services are well attended and knowledge of Canada’s role in world conflicts is rising.

“Remembrance Day services are more popular now than ever and all the schools put on a good ceremony,” he said. “Despite the rain and cold we had great attendance at the Stellarton ceremony on Nov. 11.”

Moore, who has been at the helm of the Legion since 2012, said a shift needs to take place if the Legion is to survive. Engagement with youth groups, such as cadets, could mean untapped potential.

“Now more than ever, is the time for the youth to take over.”

While it’s not the time for legions to rest on their laurels, White said it’s about time the legion celebrate the good things it does.

“We send and support young athletes across the country and here in Pictou County worked hard to get the veterans unit in Pictou,” he said. “We’ve got to brag a bit and toot our own horn.”

On a national scale, the legion acts as an advocate for veterans and the president meets with the military’s top brass monthly.

“It’s going to take time, but we’re going to turn things around,” said Moore. “We owe it to our vets.”

Those interested in joining the Royal Canadian Legion can find more information here: www.legion.ca/members/become-a-member.

 

john.brannen@ngnews.ca

On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn

 

 

FACT BOX: In Service to Canada

Wars and conflicts   Number served   Number killed   Number of living veterans   Average age

 

WWI: 1914-1918   650,000   68,000   0   –

WWII: 1939-1945   1,000,000   47,000  91,400   89

Korea:1950-1953   26,791   516   9,900   81

Afghanistan   39,558   158   –   –

Organizations: Royal Canadian Legion Branch

Geographic location: Pictou County, Canada, Stellarton River John Nova Scotia Nunavut Korea

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  • Graham Johnston
    November 30, 2013 - 18:37

    I’m a lifelong supporter of the legion. My uncle died overseas, my grandmother a Silver Cross Mother. I served in Air and Army cadets, my brother with long service in the Navy. However, last year, a local community committee that included members of the Legion reviewed the critical nutritional needs of our most vulnerable veterans, those elderly heroes living in PCHA residential units. The committee recommended that feeding the old farts frozen TV dinners twice a day for the rest of their lives was good enough. When public outcry rallied massive community protest against PCHA's plan, the Legion remained silent. The Legion could have stepped up and supported the community and families of these vets and asked for a review. Instead, there was not a word from the Legion. Given failure of the Legion to protect and advocate for their most vulnerable members, those brave vets who fought for us overseas in world conflict, which by the way is their primary role, it is no wonder that this community turns it back on the Legion. I, for one, for the first time in my life this year, refused to purchase or wear a poppy on Remembrance Day. I did so in support our veterans, a duty the Legion abrogated. If they wonder why they are fast becoming irrelevant, they should look in the mirror.