As Canadians honour the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the association that’s supported returning veterans for nearly as long is also reflecting on its efforts as cornerstones in communities across B.C.
But with not a single World War I veteran still alive today, an aging population is causing some concern that without new members, the Royal Canadian Legion’s ability to help returning soldiers could be in question.
Dave Whittier, who was the commanding officer in the Canadian Armed Forces’ 39 Signal Regiment, told Black Press Media the Royal Canadian Legion’s B.C.-Yukon Command has changed over the years in two ways: its size and members.
At its peak, the Legion was 600,00-strong across the country. Today, that number stands closer to 250,000 with about 45,000 in B.C., Whittier said
About half of those members are aged 65 years old or over.
“There was a time when the Legion was a veterans’ organization and it was from World War I and World War II veterans,” Whittier said. “That has changed over time and we are a veterans’ service organization now that actually welcomes anyone who wants to join the Legion – who believes in what we are doing and wants to be part of that – to step up and help out.”
Primarily funded through the annual poppy campaign, the Legion supports veterans and their families through financial assistance, disability claims, helping access counselling services and supports for those who have more recently served overseas adjust back to everyday life.
Roughly $2.5 million is raised across the province each year.
At the heart of dwindling numbers is a fear that veterans in need will suffer in silence and that integral pieces of history will be lost.
“It’s very much a concern for us,” Whittier said. The provincial headquarters has been offering business-related guidance to local branches to ensure funds are being used adequately to keep the brick and mortar locales running.
But despite decreasing support, Whittier said he’s been struck by how volunteers care so greatly for this country’s veterans.
“We really need to not only stand on the mountain top and shout out that message but make sure that other people have the opportunity to be apart of it,” he said.
Anyone interested in volunteering, becoming a member – or even spending some time with veterans in their community – don’t have to do much more than walk through their Legion’s doors.
“They get to be a part of the continuity of history, and to come into a branch and sit down with folks… really what we’re trying to provide to the veterans is a family they can be apart of and be welcome at. Bringing the young folks in, I think that extra level of excitement, energy and enthusiasm would go a long way in helping to maintain that.”
And in turn, you might get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of hearing a bit of history never shared before.
“It’s important to know we have no more World War I veterans left, so if their stories haven’t been captured they are gone to us now,” Whittier said. “For some of the big moments in our history we are starting to lose those stories so it’s more important now than ever before to be able to reach out to these folks, understand what they went through, capture those stories so we can make sure we don’t go to the same place again.”