WHALLEY — Founded way back in 1925, the Royal Canadian Legion is rightly recognized as the nation’s foremost veteran’s advocacy group. Yet to many, it’s more typically seen as the place for veterans and, more recently, non-veterans, to gather, socialize and share a drink and a story.
But is it losing its relevance? Membership is certainly in decline – such a steep decline, in fact, that the news of branch closures isn’t so much revelation as it is acceptance.
Some blame an aging demographic, caused in turn by the simple lack of recent large-scale conflicts. Some say the Legion doesn’t advocate as it once did – that it’s lost touch with recent military veterans. Others say it doesn’t do enough to attract new civilian interest, while opposing factions claim there are already too many “civvies.”
What’s a Legion to do?
In the case of the Whalley branch, realism is key.
“I think all across Canada, membership is slowing down,” said branch president Tony Moore.
“A lot of the newer, younger veterans… They want to do their own thing and be a member of their own association. It’s hard to get them to come over.
“It’s not like the end of World War I or Korea, where hundreds of thousands of people came back at the same time and they all had something in common. The new soldier who comes back today…they’re in onesies or twosies and I think they find it harder to join.”
Last Saturday morning, Moore was relaxed and witty and tried to talk above the din from the cribbage tourney going on at the other end of the room. He didn’t avoid the issues, but he did not dwell either.
Because in Whalley, there’s hope.
There’s the planned Legion Veterans Village, for one. Unveiled in September, it’s a massive undertaking that will incorporate assisted-living units, family space and community gardens. Moreover, said Moore, “it’ll look like the Canadian Vimy Ridge Memorial (in France). It’ll revitalize downtown Surrey.”
Moore also talked about how his Legion gave $100,000 last year to charitable causes. He also noted how it took in $120,000 over the same period through poppy sales – the second highest total in the entire province – and how the branch now allows parents to bring in their children whenever the kitchen is open.
“I think you’ll notice we have a lot of associate members who are sons or daughters of older members.” he said. “We’re lucky people. We’re starting to get awareness of the legion again. Through word-of-mouth, we’re trying to move it along, and items in the newspaper, that helps out too. And people get interested. It’s what you’ve got to offer at the end of the day.”
By the end of this day, the Whalley Legion will have two new members. Moore said his Legion gets a half-dozen new recruits every month and last Saturday, it was Raphael Belgrave’s and Sheila Molsner’s turn.
Soon, Moore and the newbies and Legion 2nd VP Jill Bilesky were in the midst of the official initiation routine. Belgrave and Molsner declared their loyalty to Canada and the Legion and swore they aren’t members of submissive organizations. Moore and Bilesky explained the Legion’s emblems and its purpose.
Soon enough, it was all done.
Whalley resident Belgrave, who works in a print shop and is a former Surrey minor football coach, said he digs the Legion atmosphere.
“I used to be a member of the Legion in North Van. My last membership was in 2008. I started coming here all the time, so I decided it was time to join. It’s a peaceful, nice place to be, and I think it does great things in the community.”
Clear, he also has a love affair with Canada.
“Canada is a perfect country. I’m originally from Barbados. Canada is a little bit like Barbados. It’s free…and anyone can do anything if they have the will to do it.”
Though not a veteran, Belgrave said he’ll gladly help with Legion activities if the opportunity presents itself. He won’t, however, be attending Whalley’s Remembrance Day ceremonies next week. Instead, he’ll be with partner Patricia’s family at the New Westminster event.
Said Patricia, “We have allegiance to the New West area. My dad was in the Royal Westminster Regiment. We’re a military family. My son is currently the VP of the New West branch, and my grandson, after four years in the Navy League, has just aged up the Sea Cadets. So they are in the ceremonies every year.”
Molsner, who also lives in Whalley, joined purely for the social aspect. And, she said, because it’s sometimes hard to get in the door.
“I joined in 2006, dropped off for a few years, and joined again today. It’s good to have your membership card because no matter where you go, it’s hard to get in. $50 a year is nothing.”
She prefers the Legion to a bar.
“I used to go out (when I lived) in Ontario to bars and for dancing. When you go to those places, it’s like the typical bar scene. The Legion is nice.”