SACKVILLE, N.B. - Legions across Canada are charged with assuring those have fallen in battle and have served are remembered forever.
And six New Brunswick veterans continue to take the responsibility very seriously, improvising as necessary, despite having no formal building to conduct their efforts from.
“The six do a poppy campaign and everything. The president – I think it’s been the same for the last 20 years – organizes meetings in the kitchens of the members’ houses,” said Jack Clayton, executive director of the provincial command for New Brunswick.
Currently there are 70 branches in the province, some very small, three or four large, as well as medium-sized branches with fewer than 100 members.
Clayton has been a legion member for 45 years, about 40 of them spent in an executive position.
“Speaking for my own legion, in the Saint John area, there are legions that still serve purposes in their community,” he said, “whether that be raising funds for the Royal Canadian Legion or acting as a community centre to host functions. Of the 70 branches, I think maybe eight or 10 of them don’t have a building.”
However, those without a permanent building, manage to find a place to serve as headquarters during the poppy campaign and still support their communities.
“They still continue to make donations into the community, especially for the youth and seniors.”
Legion membership shrinks
Clayton, who was provincial president in 1996-97, has seen 16 branches close in the last 22 years. Some smaller ones amalgamate, but other branches have surrendered altogether.
“And it’s not easy to see happen. It’s hard, even when reading the minutes of the meeting where they discuss closing and surrendering their charter for me to send back to Ottawa; you can read between the lines of the long discussion and it shows that they’ve done everything they can to keep going, but it’s just not possible,” Clayton said sorrowfully.
A major problem New Brunswick’s legions face – as is the case in most other provinces – is dwindling membership.
Clayton has also worked as membership chairman for the province.
“I still don’t know what we can do. We try everything. We even have a recruiting program which gets us out there in the community. But trying to get them to stay is one of the main goals of the upcoming strategic plan for the Dominion National Command.”
The province’s first branch, dating back to 1926, was Carleton No. 2, Saint John, which closed its doors four years ago. It hosted the first Dominion Convention in 1928, with 42 attending,
Recently, the Dominion Convention was held in Winnipeg, Man., with 1,000 delegates; understandably, the main topic was membership.
Clayton’s strong sense of pride comes out when he attends the Dominion conferences.
“The first thing I think, when I attend the meeting, is how proud I am to be part of this organization. For the work that’s been done, and the money raised by the small branches, to me, they are just as worthy as the branches with 2,000 members.”
Adapting and changing, but still serving
Clayton remembers hearing about a time where the legion wasn’t as inclusive as it is today, including a time when it wasn’t easy for women to join the legion, he said.
“It’s not nearly as heavy as it was. But at one time, most of the branches expected the ladies to join the ladies’ auxiliary, which is a service to assist the branch. I think it was in 1982 that they became allowed to join both branch membership and the auxiliary.”
He says if it weren’t for auxiliaries, a lot of branches wouldn’t exist today.
“They are the backbone and major supports of the branches, and I don’t have any qualms saying that. If it wasn’t for them a lot of them wouldn’t be around.”
The role of the auxiliary was to provide support and assist in fundraisers and dinners the branch was hosting.
“They always looked after the branch itself. For example, during war time, the Ladies’ Auxiliary in Canada raised all the money for the bonds to buy ambulances to send overseas. Auxiliaries today, not only assist in keeping the branches running, but they often will make monetary donations to help with the branch. Even though it’s not required.
“They’ll also support the youth of the province, through the Youth Leadership Camp as well as other bursaries.”
Clayton says when legions were at their peak in New Brunswick, there was about 100 branches.
Over the years, there have been misconceptions to deal with, as well.
“A lot of people have the impression the legion is only a cheap place to go drink and a place for the ladies to go on Saturday night to play bingo,” he said with a laugh.
“I don’t think people realize how much the branches donate to their communities. They donate to the schools for playground equipment, help with their breakfast programs and more. They just don’t get the publicity they deserve.”
Clayton says legions are adapting to the times.
“People hate change. I know some wish it could be run the way it was in the 1950s – it can’t. But the membership that is coming up, is staying with the times. You see some of them embracing the sign of the times, using Facebook and other platforms to keep their branches engaged.”
Millicent McKay is a SaltWire Network journalist in Summerside, P.E.I.