SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. - Given its population, you wouldn’t expect Prince Edward Island to have had 33 successful legion branches in its heyday.
“There were quite a few, and there still are, when you think about the population of the Island,” said Owen Parkhouse, vice-president of P.E.I. Provincial Command of the Royal Canadian Legion.
That number now stand at 17.
The oldest branch on the Island is Charlottetown No. 1 – depending on who you talk to.
“There’s a bit of a rivalry between Charlottetown and O’Leary Branch No. 2,” he said with a chuckle.
“Technically, Charlottetown is the oldest legion on the Island, but there is some debate over that because O’Leary technically formed first, but they received their charter after Charlottetown.”
O’Leary’s membership formed around 1926 and Charlottetown followed just after that. But Charlottetown received its charter April 1, 1928; O’Leary received its charter Oct. 1, 1928.
“So, there was about six months in the difference. But technically O’Leary did form first, in that they were a collection of veterans that came together and decided to open a location.”
He says every origin, while based out of the need for a united voice for veterans, has its own back story.
“They all formed for the same purpose, but it’s what makes up their history that makes them different. A couple of legions don’t have buildings anymore, but they’re still thriving as non-building legions. Mount Stewart is an example, so is Morrell. So, the legion is a name that still attracts members and carries on the work of the organization.
“And even though they lost the building, it shows their desire to survive. Online platforms have also played a role in the survival of legions.”
At time of the legion branches' formation, he said, the Great War Veterans Association was battling similar organizations trying to achieve the same goal. He says something similar is happening today.
“We’ve got all these veteran organizations popping up after Afghanistan and it’s a disunified voice right now.”
As for P.E.I. branches, current success varies.
“They’ve done their best to change with the times. They’ve renovated their buildings. They’ve moved to new ones.” Owen Parkhouse
“Some have been doing excellent, others have been struggling – there’s no doubt about that,” Parkhouse said solemnly.
“But it’s just the ebb and flow of membership. Membership is the key to the success of any legion. And when you start to lose your Second World War veterans, which is what is happening, and the new veterans haven’t been signing up like the First and Second World war vets did, it’s an issue.”
Parkhouse said lower membership numbers also come as a result of a dispute.
“I think the veterans feel the legion sold them out by backing the New Veteran’s Charter, but the fact is the NVC was supposed to be a living document, that’s the way the government sold it to the legion, so it was supposed to be a document that was changing. And it is starting to change now.”
The NVC was adopted in 2006. At the time, it was thought the NVC could provide benefits the former mandate could not, including more support than the Pension Act provided. Because the need for a new charter was met with urgency, it was not reviewed, clause-by-clause in parliamentary committee or the Senate. But its installation was met with contempt and members of the legion have called for changes and reinstatement of benefits that were available pre-NVC. This included the Pension for Life program. Details about the new program are scarce and legion representatives say they continue to press for improvements of the NVC.
“I think a lot of veterans will be happy about that, and I think the legion has been backing that since 2006, for the re-instatement of that program.”
Manoeuvring back to the topic of success, Parkhouse says legions that have thrived are often the only social venue for the area.
“Like Wellington, they’re doing well, Tignish is doing quite well, Kingston is doing very well and they had a very successful chase the ace, which certainly gave them the capital they needed to allow them to continue to go on for some time.”
Chase the ace and other fundraising initiatives have helped, he added.
“It comes down to good leadership and that leadership from the membership. So, the ones that are doing well have that, the good financial sense to remain in the black rather than go in the red and adapt with the times.”
No matter what, legions continue to be a part of society’s mosaic, weaving their own story as times change.
“They have to move with the times. And I think they’ve realized that. And they’re becoming a bit more in tune with the new generation. You know, because in the past there was a focus on perhaps sports that weren’t likely to get the new veterans in, like darts and shuffleboard, so the legion is starting to recognize the need for new platforms like video games and whatnot.
“They’ve done their best to change with the times. They’ve renovated their buildings. They’ve moved to new ones.”
A good example is Kensington, where the building was old and dilapidated. Rather than see their legion fold they found a way to survive and move into a new building.
“For the future, legions have to look at what people are interested in now, the video lottery games, which people wanted. The legion has to move with what the veterans need.”
Parkhouse recalled a time, believed to be the 1960s when a group of youngsters was going to go to the legion. Before they left, their mother told them they had to put on their Sunday best because they were going to be meeting veterans.
“So that shows where the legion was held in regard, especially in small communities’” he said. “And for the most part it still is. I don’t think people dress in their Sunday bests to go there. But I think people have a deep respect for veterans, still, and I think the legion is held in high regard for what it does for veterans.
Legion remains very much a fabric of Canadian life, he concluded.
“And in small communities, even more so. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t know someone who got married in a legion, had their reception there, the wakes after the loss of a loved one. Legions have been the hub for getting together for community meetings. They’ve been the centre of fundraising, and for good times and bad times.”
Millicent McKay is a SaltWire Network journalist in Summerside, P.E.I.