SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. - Service. Comradeship. Unity.
It’s said these three words inspired creation of the Royal Canadian Legion.
After a time of war, veterans felt vulnerable and believed they needed one strong voice among all veteran organizations in Canada.
Years before formation of the Royal Canadian Legion branches, Canadian veterans and their families were represented by several small groups, stemming from army and navy.
In 1917, the Great War Veterans Association (GWVA) was formed. While it acted as a larger, stronger voice, the small groups still existed - totaling about 15 and a handful of regimental associations spanning the country.
In the mid-1920s, the GWVA was facing internal disruptions as well as issues plaguing modern legions – declining membership and competing organizations.
In 1925 Marshall Earl Haig, co-founder of the British Empire Service League (BESL), encouraged Canadian veterans to unite under one organization.
That same year, the GWVA and other groups met in Winnipeg, Man., and decided to amalgamate into the Canadian Legion, under the umbrella of the BESL.
“At this time, there were about 18 organizations that decided to come together,” said Brad White, national executive director of Dominion Command.
The year 1926 marked the official birth of the legion when the letters were patented. At the time there were about 20,000 veterans, White explained.
In the following years, the legion grew, helping veterans through the hard financial times of the Great Depression. It also advocated for improved pensions and health benefits from the Canadian government.
Second World War
During and after the Second World War, the legion grew quickly with a massive influx of young and new veterans. During that time, it provided various programs, like entertainment and canteen services, in Canada and overseas.
“When the second war began, there was another flurry of organizations looking to advocate on behalf of veterans. The same thing is happening today with groups forming after coming home from the Afghanistan conflict,” White continued.
It’s nothing new in the veteran community that organizations come and go, he said.
When the war ended, more than one million Canadians returned home and the legion helped veterans reintegrate into everyday life, while providing advice on government benefits.
It advocated for the Veterans Charter, a set of laws that created new service for veterans, including business- and university-level training, land grants for farming, low cost housing and disability pensions.
In 1960, the name was changed to the Royal Canadian Legion with the Queen’s permission.
Today, provinces and territories are organized with a command, falling under the national dominion headquarters in Ottawa. The organization’s mandate has not changed; its role is still to support veterans and their families, advocate on their behalf and act as a united voice for their concerns and issues.
The organization is mainly funded by membership fees, which vary from location to location. In addition, there are national and individual fundraisers like the Poppy Campaign from the end of October to Nov. 11, as well as events like weekly "chase the ace" games.
There are about 1,400 branches across the country with membership totaling 175,000 in 2018.
For reference, when membership was at its peak, there were more than 600,000 legion members in the mid-1980s.
To combat the problem of dwindling membership, the Royal Canadian Legion opened its doors to associate members (parents, spouses, children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces and nephews of veterans) and affiliate members (citizens who do not have a familial tie to a veteran).
Royal Canadian Legion ordinary membership includes still serving and retired military, reservists, RCMP, police officers, Canadian Coast Guard, and others listed in the organization’s general bylaws.
White says the demographic is divided, with about 25 to 30 per cent comprised of ex-military, 40 to 45 per cent family members of veterans and the rest being ordinary Canadians who believe in the legion’s mandate.
“We’re not the old organization. Our purpose is still the same, but, through our evolution, we also became the cornerstone of a lot of Canadian communities. We’re where the community meets, greets and mourns and that’s what it’s all about.”
White says there is no doubt the organization needs to continue to change and adapt.
Currently there is an effort to get Afghanistan and late-Cold War veterans involved in the legion.
“I call it veterans helping veterans,” said White. “We have a lot of very young Afghanistan veterans that are out there who have now turned back to the Legion and said they need to get involved and engaged.”
Millicent McKay is a SaltWire Network journalist in Summerside, P.E.I.