Veterans' Legion battles falling membership
Published Thursday, November 6, 2008 6:05PM EST
TORONTO - For Al Hebburn, the Royal Canadian Legion has long been a vital part of his life, as it has been for tens of thousands of others who have served the country in war.
But Hebburn, 92, and many other legion members wonder how long the venerable institution that bills itself as one of Canada's largest service organizations can outlast a dying breed of veterans and retain the importance it holds for him.
"If we didn't have such an organization, I'd be lost in this world," says Hebburn, who as an infantry sergeant survived the bloody Battle of Dieppe and the invasion of Normandy in the Second World War.
"Most of my buddies are gone. My family is all gone."
Like many of the 500,000 men and women who returned to Canada after helping defeat the Nazis, Hebburn signed onto his local legion in Toronto and became active.
"It's a socializing affair," Hebburn says. "It's a keep in touch with the people that I already enjoy, which is ex-soldiers and sailors and so forth."
Now he's just one of four Second World War vets who still go to the Branch 31 hall in west-end Toronto, down from 60 a decade ago. The rest have died, moved away or become confined to home or nursing homes.
Founded at Winnipeg in November 1925 as the Canadian Legion of the British Empire Services League, the legion incorporated a year later. It had 50,000 members then, many veterans of the trenches of the First World War.
Today, the non-profit Royal Canadian Legion has about 350,000 members across Canada. Only about 14 per cent have actual war service and about a third have direct ties to the military.
But membership is falling -- down 25,400 from last year, which dropped 15,200 from 2006, which was down 16,800 from 2005.
It's a worrisome trend for active members -- and one not being reversed by the younger veterans of battlefields such as Afghanistan, where 14,000 have served.
Almost 40 per cent of members are over 70 years old, and just six per cent are in the 18 to 39 age group.
"They, unfortunately, see the legion as a lot of young people do: `It was for them; it was for the old guys from World War 2. It was for the guys from Korea. It's not for us,"' says Doug MacNeil, president of Branch 31.
"They don't see a thing with the legion. It's hard to connect with them."
More and more, once-smoky legion halls where old vets swapped war stories over a beer have morphed into community social clubs with looser and looser ties to veterans.
Bob Butt, spokesman for the Dominion Command of the Royal Canadian Legion, says the legion remains "extremely relevant" as Canada's custodian of Remembrance Day and a strong supporter of the country's veterans.
It's not uncommon for people to get involved in service organizations only after they get older, Butt says, but legion brass has recognized the need to try to appeal to a wider cross-section of the public.
For example, membership qualifications have been relaxed, he notes.
"A lot of people think it's still only for the military," Butt says. "But it's not just for the military. It's for all Canadians. We've made those changes and it will take some time to kick in."
Still, MacNeil says the legion has been slow to change in its quest to stay relevant. It needs to shed some of its traditionalist mindset, such as maintaining ties to the British monarchy, and do more to welcome new members of all backgrounds, he says.
"If the legion really wants to stay alive, they would have to really open their doors and encompass a lot more people and offer them something," MacNeil says.
About 1,550 legion halls are still active in Canada, but their numbers are also falling, as fewer members means fewer bodies to support the mortgage or pay for upkeep.
It's especially tough keeping a legion hall going in bigger cities as people move away and support declines. Some branches no longer have their own hall, instead meeting in church basements as a way to keep going.
"As the memberships die off, if they can't bring people in, an individual branch can't sustain itself," MacNeil says.
Some municipalities have offered property-tax breaks because the halls, especially in small towns, are often a vital part of the community's social fabric -- a place for weddings, dances and other social events.
Hebburn, an obvious favourite and source of pride at Branch 31, says he won't make any predictions about the legion's future. It's not something he has much time to worry about, he says.
The organization will survive as long as it "serves the purpose of the living people," he says, given that old soldiers like him are almost a thing of the past.
"I would say there is no such a thing as a future generation of our kind of service people that are living today," Hebburn says.
"They're a generation of a different type of people. Their thoughts are different."