If you were to ask any child of this generation what the Legion is, they would most likely say it was a place where their grandparents go for Remembrance Day. The bright red poppy on the lapels of many is the connecting thread between one generation and the next.
Today, most of the Legions across Canada are places where people go to shoot a little pool, quaff a pint and visit with their neighbours. The Legion is also the organization that hosts the annual Remembrance Day parades and subsequent ceremonies at cenotaphs across the nation.
The Royal Canadian Legion is more than just that. Since 1926, it has been an advocate and supporter for military veterans. Striving to obtain adequate pensions and benefits for veterans and their families is one of the major goals of today’s Legion.
The Royal Canadian Legion Branch 54 began in 1926 under the banner of the Canadian Legion of the British Empire Service League. It was Mr. Lyall Sheilds, a local blacksmith, who suggested a branch be formed in Sooke. Meetings were held in people’s homes and the community hall until 1944 when two lots were purchased opposite the community hall. After the war a store was purchased as well as a surplus army hut from Milne’s Landing and moved onto the Legion property. In 1944 the taxes on the property amounted to $13.40.
Times have changed and so has the Legion. While it was historically a place for those who served in the military, it is now that and a whole lot more.
“We are seeking new members,” said this year’s chair of the Poppy Campaign Tom Lott. “There’s not as many vets as there used to be and we are opening more categories, including non-military.”
One thing that has to be remembered, said Lott, is that the essence of the Legion is Remembrance Day. Through the sale of poppies, many services are made available to veterans. The list is a long one and includes; the Lodge at Broadmead, veterans’ transition programs, Cockerill House for veterans who have trouble finding their way in the world, Ayre Manor Lodge to name just a few. There are so many local groups and organizations that have been the recipients of the generosity of the Legion.
In many places across the country Legions and the society around it are not thriving, in fact they are closing their doors — but not in Sooke.
“Sooke is getting by,” said Lott.
That may be because of what is offered at Branch 54. There are pool tables and shuffleboard, a little video gambling for those inclined, cribbage, Euchre and mat bowling as well as the popular Friday steak night.
There are still rules to be followed, like no hats, weapons, swearing, politics or rude behaviour, after all, said Lott, “it’s not a bar.”
There is also controlled entry as it is classified as a private club, which allows more flexibility to do things for members.
For full membership there are yearly dues and a member has to be nominated and go through an initiation. Above and beyond potential members have to abide by the goals and aims of the Legion.
Camille Tkacz, a veteran and volunteer at the Legion, helps veterans as a service officer. This might involve helping the elderly fill out forms or help on a computer.
“Anybody can join the Legion today,” she said. “We encourage people who are looking to do something in the community, something to occupy a few hours. It’s a great place to volunteer. We encourage the younger people to join.”
And what is “younger” exactly? Well, it could be someone just out of the military or someone around 55, and it could be someone even younger than that. The average age these days is about 60.
“It’s a very rewarding place to volunteer,” said Tkacz. She spent 35 years in the Canadian army and her husband, Bob Ayotte, who also volunteers, served 35 years in the navy.
And the place is friendly, there are lots of stories to be told and memories to hold. It really is a “community” club with the aim of helping those who live in Sooke.
“Our strength depends on members,” said Tkacz.