There was a time when the Royal Canadian Legion hall was the social centrepiece of many smaller cities and communities across Canada, including St. Albert. The legion and its membership of war veterans was heavily involved in community activities ranging from the sponsorship of young children’s sports to seniors’ support systems.
The legion website says it estimates an economic impact across Canada of approximately $375 million annually. Unlike churches, which don’t pay property taxes, the legion last year paid nearly $3 million to the municipalities where its buildings stand.
So it is somewhat distressing to learn that the St. Albert legion is sinking into the red financially. Not because of poor money management or lack of fundraising efforts, but an unexpected leaky roof that cost $106,000 to fix.
When it approached city council recently looking for some help in applying for a grant to help defray the roof costs, the legion didn’t exactly get a warm and fuzzy response. Yes, the group had missed the deadline for grant applications but who can schedule a leak in the roof so it co-ordinates with grant deadlines?
Now, to be perfectly clear, we’re not advocating that council begin ignoring deadlines. And we certainly are not promoting handouts, which council always seems so eager to do anyhow.
Unlike various arts groups and other outside agencies that go begging the city for handouts every year — and always seem to get most of what they want — the legion has pretty much paid its own way for decades. It pays its own bills through fundraising and membership dues, and what little revenue it makes from its bar and social gatherings.
But these are hard times for the legion. Not just in St. Albert but all across the country. In the last five years more than 65 legion halls have permanently closed their doors. Membership has dropped from about 600,000 in the 1960s to about 320,000. Veterans from the first two world wars are dying and today’s military veterans don’t want to support the legion halls, saying they’re out of touch with the needs of today’s soldiers.
And probably the legion is. It took a lot of years and sinking membership numbers for legion administration to realize it had to change or die. Its solution was to open its doors to the general public, a move that on the surface seemed like a good one. But many veterans eventually felt they had lost “their place” to outsiders. And today’s veterans say they won’t join the legion because it is now full of civilians and doesn’t offer anything for veterans between 20 and 40 years old.
So legions, like the St. Albert one, struggle along as best they can, raising funds to pay their bills and continue to support as much as they can in the community. Years ago the St. Albert legion sold off part of its building, now the Cornerstone Hall, to keep itself afloat.
The question now is, how much does St. Albert value the legion? Is this growing city of 62,000, with an annual budget of more than $120 million, and with thousands of dollars handed out every year to other agencies (the handouts total more than $330,000 in the 2012 budget) willing to help it survive? Or so disinterested in the legion and war veterans that we’re willing to gamble it won’t become the next to close its doors.