Veterans are front and centre on Remembrance Day, but the organization that supports them is facing low attendance and are looking to change the reputation of Legion branches in the face of possible closures.
Royal Canadian Legion branches across Canada, including Penticton’s Branch 40, are facing a grim future without an uptick in members.
“Hopefully in the next couple years we’re able to bring in younger members, otherwise they predict if we don’t get younger members in the next two or three years that most of the branches will shut down by 2022,” said Ivo Jaager, president of Branch 40.
Jaager, a member of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada joining in 1962 and stationed in Germany during the Cuban Missile Crisis, took over as president of the branch in February 2015.
The thought of closing is not a cause for concern just yet as Jaager said the Legion branch in Penticton is “doing a lot of things differently” and members are starting to come back to the branch located on Martin Street.
“Our biggest thing with Legions across the country is our average age is 68 and probably another 20 per cent are over 80 years old,” Jaager said.
It’s a problem not only in Penticton, but across Canada and as close as Summerland, where the branch hovers around the same membership numbers as Penticton with 680.
President of the Summerland branch Mike Brazeau is facing the same issues as Jaager and hopes to bring about the thought that veterans go beyond those who fought in the First and Second World Wars.
Since the Korean war, there have been various peacekeeping missions and those who have served are running into issues. Some of those who returned are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Back in the First and Second World Wars people were ashamed to come forward saying they had issues. They were supposed to be the tough soldiers,” Brazeau said. “It was there before, it was just never diagnosed. Now it’s out in the open and it is not considered a black mark anymore.”
The Summerland branch has a service officer on the executive board who is able to assist any veteran suffering from PTSD with the referral process in order to get them the help they need.
The Penticton branch has 600 members, nearly half of what the membership was in the early 1990s, and Jaager said they don’t all come through the doors on a regular basis.
“We have to come up with new creative ideas to attract young members. We’re working on it hard and we’re going to do a lot more advertising in the future here. By younger members we mean anyone under 50 would be good,” Jaager said with a chuckle.
One of those new ideas seems to be working out well for Branch 40 which hosts twice-weekly live jam sessions on Tuesday and Thursday, usually featuring live rock music on Thursday.
“We’re trying to turn it into an appealing place for young people to come to. In the past I think it was because everybody thought you had to be part of the military at some point, but that’s not the case,” Jaager said.
As long as you are a Canadian citizen you are welcome to all Legion events. The stereotypical thoughts of a Legion branch as an exclusive club with a head table that scrutinizes those who walk in is something Jaager said needs to be changed.
“We’re trying to change all that, not trying, we are going to change all that. We have to,” Jaager said.
Prior to Jaager coming on board as president the branch lost a few members after a shakeup in leadership with the dismissal of some of the executives in 2009 and the branch being put under trusteeship last year.
“It sort of split the Legion a little bit,” Jaager said. “The last couple years it hasn’t been good, but with the new executive we have this year it’s improved by quite a bit. It’s coming down to where we are attracting new members.”
Members that have not been around since the dismissals are starting to come back, he said. As far as attracting younger members, the Tuesday and Thursday jam sessions have been a hit for the branch.
While trying to garner attendance, the Penticton Legion will still be giving back to the community with proceeds from poppy sales going to veterans, the branch is still hosting special occasion dinners and using the money from their gaming license to fund high school bursaries, air cadets and army cadets. The funds from the gaming license drew in about $20,000 more than the previous year in 2015 making nearly $70,000.
Things are looking up for Branch 40 coming off two busy weekends with a Rocky Horror Picture Show party the night before Halloween and a multiple bands on multiple stages packing the house last weekend.
Of course, the branch is still there first and foremost for veterans.
“If anyone is in need that’s our first priority,” Jaager said.
-With files from Carla McLeod, Black Press