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Remembering the Legion

Posted on 11 November 2010

Today is Remembrance Day. It’s sort of an awkward day, because it’s like a holiday, except solemn rather than celebratory. It’s weird to see stores open and people staying out late the night before and treating it like a weekend when it really is a day set aside to honour the dead and the battle-scarred. I mean, technically, we are at war.

And yet, the war is pretty removed from my life, and I don’t think I’m alone. I have an uncle who was in the military, and one friend from high school is now. That’s about it. Other than the fact that I read about it in newspapers, follow political debates, and listen to Afghanada, it may as well not be happening. It certainly doesn’t loom over my life the way I imagine it would have had I lived during World War I and II.

And I’m not alone. It seems as if more and more Canadians are feeling isolated from our military– and our military is becoming isolated from mainstream Canadian society. In the Walrus magazine last month, Karen Pinchin wrote about dwindling numbers at Legions across the country, even as more veterans are being produced. She writes about the controversy surrounding overtures to younger generations of veterans and civilians: big-screen TVs, rock music, karaoke. All of this in an attempt to make enough money from bar sales to help legions fight their skyrocketing debt.

Here in Prince George I visited the local legion, branch number 43. It was the first time I’d ever been inside, despite having walked past it countless times and waiting outside for a bus. Inside is almost exactly what I expected: country music, pool tables, darts, older clientele, framed portraits on the wall and various flags and military paraphenalia. I could actually see it turning into one of the hipper places in town if more people knew about it– good size, good food, etc. But, of course, it’s going under. Once at 2,500 members, it’s gone down to about 650, and they’re looking to sell and move out of the the tree-floor building that has been the Legion’s home since at least the 1950s.

I spoke with second vice-president John Scott about what the legion does and where it stands now. He explained that legions as a whole act as advocates for veterans. When government doesn’t give out what they view as fair compensation for active duty or doesn’t recognize this or that after-effect of the war, it’s the legions who advocate on their behalf. They’re an established voice, and without them, Scott worries about who will see that those who have fought for their country are treated properly. They’re trying to expand their membership, but there don’t seem to be a lot of people taking up the cause.

His hypothesis that the current war is less social than previous wars is one I haven’t heard before (it’s worth noting that in the Walrus article a retired colonel notes that today’s soldier drink less than they used to). He says that while in the past, forty of fifty people from Prince George might sign up, serve, and come back together, today you’ll have just one or two people signing up alone and, upon coming back, not knowing anyone else who served with them. It’s a much more solitary affair. Add to that the fact that most people are barely aware the war is going on, and you have some isolated individuals who are dealing with some pretty heavy stuff.

It’s not as if I’m nostalgic for the whole country pulling together to go to war. It’s probably healthy that we don’t have dozens of people signing up in large groups. But we still need a military. And regardless of what you think of the current combat mission, these people are risking their lives to fulfill the wishes of a government that we, as a country, elected. That’s worth something. And it seems a shame that something that has served veterans for so long is now struggling, just as we probably need it more than we have in years.

Something worth remembering, anyways.

See also:

Lest We Forget, the Walrus:

Reinventing the Legion: A Story of Survival, the Coast Reporter

Poor Economy Blamed on Tighter Poppy Donations, The Montreal Gazette:

About the Legion, The Royal Canadian Legion:

Afghanada, CBC Radio:

Filed under: Canada, CBC

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