KAMLOOPS - The Royal Canadian Legion is top of mind when Remembrance Day rolls around each year, whether it's the poppy campaign or the services held on Nov. 11, but during the rest of the year the organization is facing challenges.
The problem is young veterans don’t think about legions they way older generations of armed forces member do, according to Kamloops’ Legion 52 president Craig Thomson.
“The legion itself is trying to change. We have to change the way we recruit members," Thomson says. "We have to make it more appealing for new members to come in, and by new members I mean young members. We have to start providing what they need or what they want."
Every year, there are fewer and fewer veterans from the great wars. The beer halls they created as a way to socialize, decompress, and even rehabilitate, continue to grow quieter and emptier.
In two years, the Kamloops legion will celebrate its 90 anniversary. The average age of members is 68.
“We are holding our own locally. We have about 450 members,” Thomson says, but admits every year is a bit of a struggle.
Legions across British Columbia and Canada are losing members in steady numbers. Thomson says the only way to keep these organizations afloat, is to attract younger vets from past peacekeeping missions or the war in Afghanistan.
While legions have a number of functions, from operating veterans’ care homes to sponsoring the cadet corps, their primary role is to support veterans and their families.
“If a veteran has to go to a doctors appointment outside of the city and can’t afford it, we’ll pick up the travel tab. If a veteran has to go to Penticton to see their Veteran’s Affairs representative, again, we’ll pick up the travel tab,” Thomson says of the legion’s services.
Thomson says sometimes it’s difficult to relay to the younger generations the legion is there for them too. Legion 52 has gone out of its way to prove this through renovations to the existing hall, changing programs and adding services in an effort to be more appealing.
“There’s a legion on Vancouver Island that has just closed down its lounge operation and it’s going to be operating coffee shop. There’s a branch in Northern B.C. that saw a need and they’re now going to be doing pizzas; take home pizzas,” Thomson says of some ways legions have tried to attract new members.
The problem with an institution so steeped in history, Thomson says, is often membership is quite resistant to change. Legions have identified 2022 will be the critical year when declining enrollment meets economic viability.
“(Some members say) ‘we’ve always done it this way, why are we changing?’" he says. "Well we have to change because of this, this, and this."
"‘I don’t care about that, all I care about is I’m going to come in here every Thursday and have my two beers.’ Well one guy coming in every Thursday and having his two beers is not helping us out a whole lot.”
Thomson says the torch will eventually be passed, but would be a shame if there was no one to pass the torch to.
“I tell the guys… the legion is your legacy. We’re running it for you now, but some day you guys have to step up and take over the reins. This is what the organization does; we are here for veterans.”
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