Legions look to change

In the heart of downtown Regina, Royal Canadian Legion's Regina Branch 001 has provided communal space for Canadian military veterans since it was first chartered in 1926.

Today, it hosts a museum for Saskatchewan's military stories and its doors are open to any veteran struggling to file paperwork, find proper medical help or even temporary housing when times are tough.

The legion provides free, essential walk-in services for veterans in Regina -- and yet, the branch had to start a GoFundMe campaign last month to scrape together enough money to stay open.

Branch 001's story is not unique. Most members served in the Second World War and the Korean War. Many have now passed away, and it's an ongoing challenge to keep the space open.

Across the country, Royal Canadian Legion branches are facing the realities that come with aging member demographics.

About half of the legion's 270,000 members are aged 65 or over -- a statistic that's taking a toll on everything from filling poppy campaign shifts to paying the monthly rent.

Ronn Anderson, president of the Manitoba and Northwest Ontario command, said it's an issue affecting city and rural branches alike, with closures in small towns and big cities like Winnipeg.

"We are having a problem within the Royal Canadian Legion with our aging population," Anderson said.

"We're getting some younger people in but not enough to keep our numbers up, and there are some branches that find themselves in financial difficulty because they're not getting the patronage they need to remain open."

Thomas D. Irvine, the legion's dominion president, said Dominion Command in Ottawa is trying to tackle the issue by modernizing older spaces and reaching out to younger veterans who may not think the legion is for them.

"The bottom line here is the modern-day veteran doesn't like the older facilities, they want modern things, they want something to be able to walk into, for their families to do, to get involved in," Irvine said.

"Playing shuffleboard (is) not really the modern day family activity they want to get into."

The nature of the legion as a gathering place has also changed over the years, said Irvine.

In earlier conflicts, soldiers from the same town would go to war and come back home together, making the legion a logical gathering space.

Now, Irvine says, it's often one person from a town who joins the military alone and returns home with his or her colleagues spread out across the country.

That's why Irvine is trying promote installing internet at local branches to make it easier for veterans to keep in touch with their friends. Other modernization initiatives include promoting online sign-ups and game rooms for kids.

While membership is still 75-per-cent veterans and their families, any Canadian is now able to become a member -- but Irvine stressed that a veteran does not need to be a member to walk into a legion for help at any time.

And he's optimistic that the efforts to modernize the legion are working, even if change is slow. Irvine said so far in 2018, the number of membership losses is significantly lower than in previous years.

"The word's getting out there that we are changing. The numbers are turning," Irvine said.

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