Legion keeps veterans’ memories alive

Journal staff Emily Davies and Holly Tousignant spent Remembrance Day with veterans at the Kingston Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion

A veteran places a wreath on a monument at Kingston’s Royal Canadian Legion branch.
A veteran places a wreath on a monument at Kingston’s Royal Canadian Legion branch.
Veterans and their families gather at the Legion for food and drink after the Remembrance Day service on Wednesday.
Veterans and their families gather at the Legion for food and drink after the Remembrance Day service on Wednesday.
Remembrance Day draws above-average crowds of veterans and their supporters at the Kingston Royal Canadian Legion Branch 560.
Remembrance Day draws above-average crowds of veterans and their supporters at the Kingston Royal Canadian Legion Branch 560.

Canadians all over the country took time on Wednesday to remember the service and sacrifices of war veterans.

To Kingston area veterans, the Royal Canadian Legion’s Remembrance Day service was their time to honour the day with their fellow men in arms and their supporters.

The quiet ceremony took place in the Legion’s parking lot, where guests proudly sang O Canada and listened to the words of their fellow veterans. In a speech by Legion President Al Jones, the veterans and their families were asked to remember both Canada’s fallen soldiers and the men and women who made it back alive, but not without the painful burden of having witnessed death.

Jones spoke of the massive loss of life in battles such as Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and Dieppe, and of more recent conflicts such as Afghanistan. As Taps played and the Canadian flag was raised, those in attendance held their heads low in a somber remembrance of the fallen.

After the ceremony the veterans filed inside to receive their free drink ticket, and the mood quickly became boisterous and celebratoryas the Legion filled with people, drinks and laughter. Veterans young and old shared their stories of war, friendship and loss.

Gerry Ellis, a member of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, said he and his friends have been regulars at the Montreal St. Legion for years.

“We’ve been coming once a week lately, but before that we were here every day, and I volunteered here for 10 years,” he said. “Every Saturday we come down, the six to eight of us, and shoot the breeze … We talk about the days in Korea and the good times over there. It was just a job we had to do.” Ellis, who fought in the Korean war from 1951 to 1953, said his family has a history of military involvement.

“I had five brothers and sisters in the Second World War and because of my American origins my dad was in the Spanish American war.” Ellis said the lack of young veterans involved in the Legion makes him worry about its future.

“There isn’t enough young people joining,” he said. “And the older people, as you can see, they’re dying off. The original concept for the Legion was a place for veterans to come and sit down, tell stories and visit with each other, but in this day and age that concept has faded away.”

Jones said the Royal Canadian Legion was incorporated in 1926 as the Canadian Legion of the British Empire Services League, amalgamating independent veterans’ groups and regimental associations representing all arms of military service. The Legion has historically been an emotional support system for veterans and their families.

“The Legion was formed because after the war that ended in 1918, all these little groups were set up, army, navy, air force—everybody had their own little group, even those who were deaf; they had a group just for them. All the groups got together and became the Royal Canadian Legion. Now we assist veterans. Originally it was meant as a place for camaraderie, to meet and talk about the war, we now help veterans, assist veterans and their families through the poppy drive which ends on Nov. 11,” he said. “The primary role of the Legion is to keep alive the memory of the veterans.”

Jones said the Legion sponsors youth programs such as an annual poster and literary contest designed to promote the veteran’s cause aimed at students from Grades 1 to 12.

Jones said the war in Afghanistan has made the Legion seem more relevant to today’s youth.

“They see old gentlemen, 80, 85 years and they talk about a war in 1940 and it’s hard for young people to relate,” he said. “They can relate to this because it’s happening now.”

Jones said last year his branch raised $48,000 for the Legion’s annual poppy drive.

“I think this year we’ll do better. I think the reason for that is Afghanistan, because more young people are becoming more aware of what’s going on.”

Jones, who has been involved with the Legion for 30 years, said Branch 560 has a membership of 1,200, down from the 1,700 it boasted a decade ago.

“We’re losing branches every month across the country because we’re non-profit. The $48,000 we make in poppies—we can’t spend one cent of it on ourselves, the money has to go to veterans,” he said. “The Legions are based around volunteerism.” Jones said the Legion costs about $250,000 a year to operate.

“It’s a lot. It’s very expensive,” he said. “On days like today, of course, the bar raises us some money, but we have to have other fundraising events. People don’t drink like they used to. So, we have other fundraising events. We have a lot of dances, yard sales, stuff like that. We rely a lot on donations—donations are a big part of it.”

Jones said the Legion’s working hard to recruit younger members.

“We do have some, they don’t participate much. They join, pay their membership and then we don’t see much of them until we have days like today,” he said. “I would say that 80 per cent of our membership is over the age of 65, I would like to see that switch over, but it’ll be a long time before that happens.”

Jones said Canada’s recent involvement in Afghanistan may bring greater importance to the Legion, adding that one of the Legion’s newest measures hopes to accomplish that.

“When a soldier retires from the military, they give them one year’s free membership at the Legion of their choice. If enough people are interested in that, they come, they get their free membership. Providing that after their first year of membership, they realize that it’s not a bad place, that’s what we’re looking for, that’s what we’re hoping for.” Warrant Officer Derek Marcoux fought in Afghanistan as a member of the 2 Combat Engineer Regiment for two tours of duty from July 2006 until January 2007 and May 2008 until February 2009.

Marcoux said the Legion doesn’t play an integral part in his life as a recently returned soldier.

“I’m not a member of the Legion, but I stop here quite often. No one has ever asked me for my membership. When I come in here, I have my uniform and they don’t ask.” Marcoux, who enlisted in 1990 when he was 17, said he appreciates the community with his fellow war veterans the Legion offers.

“As a soldier coming to the Legion, there’s always a soldier that you can talk to. There’s a level of understanding that the general public just doesn’t have,” he said. “I’ve lost quite a few friends over the years. It’s always nice to come down to a place like this to see my friends. Even though you were living in the situation, you’re always finding out things you weren’t aware of at the time.”

Marcoux said as an Afghanistan war veteran he believes the Canadian public isn’t well-versed in the nature of the conflict.

“I think the support is mainly towards the soldiers, but they don’t necessarily support the initiative as it is. I think they don’t really know what the initiative is about. It seems as though the government and the Canadian forces have been unable to get that message out. Whether it’s because people didn’t want to hear it, or I don’t know,” he said. “As I saw it, we were there to try to give the average Afghan peace just like everyone here has peace. It’s been 30 years of war.”

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