Even as we prepare to honour Canadian veterans and active service members tomorrow, it is sad to see what is happening to the Royal Canadian Legion.
Just 40 years ago, the Legion had more than 600,000 members. That is down to roughly 250,000 today.
I couldn’t find reliable information on how many branches have closed, but many have and many more are in danger of doing so or of scaling back dramatically. Sadly, I have seen the decline firsthand.
I never served in the military. In fact, my entire family doesn’t have much of a military background at all. There is family lore of a great uncle who was a bombardier in a Lancaster Bomber during the Second World War.
And my dad served in the cadets reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel.
I did want to give back, though, so I joined the Legion when I lived in Yorkton, Sask. I never imagined having any real responsibility, but with declining membership and lack of interest in positions on the executive, I ended up becoming secretary/treasurer.
The Legion Hall there, as in so many towns and cities across the country was, at one time, a thriving centrepiece of the community. It was a huge building with a large hall on the top floor and a large bar on the bottom floor located right on the main drag.
Countless dances, conferences, balls and weddings graced the big hall over the decades. And on any given night downstairs the bar would be packed with darts and billiards players and revellers galore.
When I was there, though, it was rare we even had anyone express interest in renting the hall. For the regular meetings the big hall would echo with the sparseness of bodies in there.
And on any given night, a handful of regulars might be in the bar. Often we would close early or not open at all. On darts and billiards nights there was a bigger crowd, but you still wouldn’t consider it full.
Long story, short, we were barely paying our utility bills. The building needed a major renovation and a new boiler.
It absolutely broke my heart when, as secretary-treasurer, I had to oversee the sale of that venerable old building.
When I left Yorkton, the Legion was relegated to a small non-descript storefront in a strip mall.
In Smithers, we are lucky to still have a relatively vibrant branch of the Legion that still does a lot of good work in the community and hosts quite a few events.
We can all help make sure the Smithers Legion doesn’t become another statistic. Membership is no longer restricted to veterans. The bar is open to the public (and the beer is cheap, or relatively so). The hall is available for rental.
There are burger nights on Fridays with a meat draw. There are pool tournaments on the weekend. And apparently, cribbage is starting up again soon.
I encourage everyone to support our local legion, lest it become too late.