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HALIFAX, N.S. - With more than 100 branches in Nova Scotia, the Royal Canadian Legion has stood the test of time.
“It’s certainly evolved over the last 92 years,” said Steve Wessell, immediate past-president of the organization's Nova Scotia/Nunavut Command.
Wessell is the son of a Second World War veteran, a connection that led to his time with the legion beginning 43 years ago.
“It’s something I’ve seen evolve over the years. I’ve seen many, many of my old comrades of the Second World War pass away and have passed the torch onto people like myself,” he said. “I used to consider myself the young guy of the group and had help from the older vets that were involved in my legion and the command. Now they’ve passed that onto me and I’m one of the older guys who’s trying to pass it on to the younger people that are coming forward.”
But there are legions that have thrived over others, he conceded.
“There are many rural legions that have been around for a long time. My branch in particular, No. 160, has been around since 1967, Centennial Branch.”
The province’s Middleton Branch No. 1 is the oldest.
Unlike in Prince Edward Island where rural branches seem to be the ones thriving, being rural has an opposite effect on Nova Scotia branches.
“The rural areas have a tendency to suffer a bit more than the city branches due to the fact that there isn’t as great a population. But there are some that still continue to be successful. In the smaller towns, where one is only a few miles away from the other, there is quite a competition. Obviously, we have our reason for being, so they survive.”
He says there have been a number of closures over the years.
“And it’s due mainly to attrition within the area. I mean we’ve had some small towns and villages that have had to give up their charter, so to speak, because they can’t survive. Some have folded due to a lack of membership.
“We’ve also had some due to financial reasons over the years.”
Wessell says the province’s membership numbers are mainly made up of civilians – affiliates and associates.
“There’s also a strong still serving Canadian Forces member base. And because Royal Canadian Legion membership is open to all Canadians, we have more associate members (family members of an armed forces personnel or vet) than veteran members.”
He says opening up membership was an effort to maintain numbers while recognizing that, if there was someone who wanted to be part of the community and help the veteran population, there was no reason they shouldn’t be able to.
“Our veteran population is wide and varied. It’s obviously progressed from those of World War One to the Second and then Korea, peacekeeping and then Afghanistan. Not to mention the various other areas that Canadians have fought in recently.”
He added it’s important the legion grows and expand.
“The legion has to change its attitude towards itself and the way we treat our veterans in order to progress into the future. And we’re doing that through centralizing our focus on younger veterans – those who have fought and served recently, especially those that are returning from overseas now.”
While he expects there may be more legion branches lost, the ones that remain will be strong in their communities.
“The legion has always been a focal point of many small towns. And I can’t see the day when a Royal Canadian Legion won’t be around. Not in my time I hope anyway.
“It’s a matter of us becoming more relatable to the younger, modern veterans.”
In Nova Scotia, legion branches have prided themselves on the supports they’ve provided to their veterans.
The legion in Nova Scotia has developed many veterans’ outreach program to reach out and help the modern-day vets, he said.
“Helping those vets is crucial to the survival of legions in Nova Scotia. We have to grow and move forward along with our veteran population. We can’t just have our legions as a place where we make it accessible for them to come in, sit around and talk to one another, because that’s not the way the younger generation wants to do things now.
“If the younger generation wants to talk to one another they’re going to do it through social media, phones, tablets… they’re not necessarily going to gather in one spot as our older veterans did and still do.”
Mental health support
Wessell says therapeutic painting classes have been started up, along with fly-tying programs and a partnership with Paws Fur Thought for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) service dogs, developed in Nova Scotia. The Paws Fur Thought program has more than 115 veterans partnered with PTSD service dogs across Canada. It was started by Medric Cousineau, a retired Sea King navigator and Star of Courage recipient, and his wife in Eastern Passage, N.S.
Funds are also raised across the province to acquire and train dogs from across the province.
“It’s a growing concern in our veteran community – the effects of mental health problems among vets. We found that these PTSD service dogs are a tremendous calming effect on vets and it’s one of our programs that we have to put everything we can into, to help veterans. There’s about a two-year waiting list to get a dog.”
Mental health is an important conversation on the table right now.
“Unfortunately, the Canadian government is turning a blind eye to it right now.
“Over the six or seven years that we’ve been dealing with Paws Fur Thought, we’ve probably dealt out over a million dollars to purchase and train dogs. And we can’t sustain that over the long term. It’s something the federal government has to get involved in and has to understand the responsibility to those who have put their lives on the line for this country.”
The remembrance campaigns in Nova Scotia, like the Poppy Campaign, are very vibrant.
“I’ve found the general public of Nova Scotia to be very receptive. They give quite generously.
“They’re also very receptive to the services at the cenotaphs across the province. The crowds have been very large over the last 10 to 15 years and growing due to our involvement with the children through cadets, girl guides, cubs and scouts and programs of sending vets to schools to talk to kids and teach them and keep remembrance alive in our younger generations.
“If not for the Royal Canadian Legion, who else would be doing it? The legion has a job to do.”
Millicent McKay is a SaltWire Network journalist in Summerside, P.E.I.