Canadian veterans’ assistance group struggles to stay afloat as its members age

Penny Klinger, right, physician liaison at Lehigh Valley Hospital Schuylkill East, of Hegins, Pa., serves George Hosler, at the veterans breakfast at Lehigh Valley Hospital Schuylkill East in Pottsville, Pa., on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. Next in line is Daniel Eifert, Cressona, Pa., commander of American Legion Post 286 Cressona. (Andy Matsko/The Republican-Herald via AP)

In the heart of downtown Regina, 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 Saskatchewan’s military stories and its doors are open to any veteran 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. Many have now passed away, and it’s an ongoing challenge to keep the space open.

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Across the country, Royal Canadian Legion branches are facing the realities that come with aging member demographics.

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About half of the legion’s 270,000 members are aged 65 or over — a statistic that’s taking a toll on everything from filling poppy campaign shifts to paying the monthly rent.

Ronn Anderson, president of the Manitoba and Northwest Ontario command, said it’s an issue affecting 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.”

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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 veterans who may not think the legion is for them.

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“The bottom line here is the modern-day veteran doesn’t like the older facilities, they want modern things, they want something to be able to walk into, for their families to do, to get involved in,” Irvine said.

“Playing shuffleboard (is) not really the modern day family activity they want to get into.”

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The nature of the legion as a gathering place has also changed over the years, said Irvine.

In earlier conflicts, soldiers from the same town would go to war and come back home together, making the legion a logical gathering space.

Now, Irvine says, it’s often one person from a town who joins the military alone and returns home with his or her colleagues spread out across the country.

That’s why Irvine is trying promote installing internet at local branches to make it easier for veterans to keep in touch with their friends. Other modernization initiatives include promoting online sign-ups and game rooms for kids.

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While membership is still 75-per-cent 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.

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And he’s optimistic that the efforts to modernize the legion are working, even if change is slow. Irvine said so far in 2018, the number of membership losses is significantly lower than in previous years.

“The word’s getting out there that we are changing. The numbers are turning,” Irvine said.

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But in the meantime, it’s hard to keep track of which branches are being hit the hardest by dwindling membership. Irvine said Dominion Command often hears the stories on the news, as they don’t report to Dominion Command.

One such story came out of branch 56 in St. John’s, N.L. this fall. A call for volunteers went out when 250 shifts to fill for the branch’s annual poppy campaign needed to be filled.

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The campaign was a success, filling all but seven shifts. But branch president Doug McCarthy said it’s a recurring pattern, and he’s heard similar stories from nearby branches cutting back on poppy campaign shifts.

At one point, McCarthy says he was one of the youngest members of his branch — while he was in his 60s.

“Every year we struggle to find sufficient volunteers to man all our locations,” McCarthy said.

“It’s an age thing. As the legion members get older, it’s more difficult for them to get out and get around.”

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 with addiction, physical and mental health challenges or even affording a bus ticket home.

“You’re going to lose a lot, besides the fact that there wouldn’t be the places then for the veterans to turn to,” said operations manager Jody Hoffman.

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“They need help and we want to help them. So it’s very important that we stay open and keep our doors open and stay sustainable so we can continue to help them any way we can.”

Hoffman’s branch is working hard to stay open, like so many others across the country.

For some smaller branches, the financial hit from aging membership has led to some tough decisions.

In Ste. Anne, Man., this year’s poppy drive will be the last put on by legion Branch 220, after 70 active years.

The branch had to sell its venue about a decade ago, so making money from renting the space was no longer an option.

Membership has dwindled to 14 people, with meetings taking place at different residences.

The members voted close the branch this year, leaving the future of poppy drives and Remembrance services in the town unknown.

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“It’s a little bit heartbreaking, but there’s other legions, too, that are having problems,” said branch president Martin Gabbs, a 35-year member.

“It’s going to be missed.”

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