Fall is always a busy time for legions across the country, with Poppy Blitz events and Remembrance Day services bringing volunteers and members out in force. But for St. Albert Legion Branch 271, it’s an even more eventful season than usual. The local legion is celebrating its 60th anniversary as part of the community and an integral organization in the lives of local veterans.
For long-time member Gord Carter, the St. Albert Legion is a spot to meet friends over a morning coffee (8-10 a.m. daily), or enjoy a beer and watch the World Series on the lounge’s big screen TV. The 85-year-old retired after 38 years with the Airborne Regiment, fighting in the Korean conflict and serving as Sergeant-At-Arms for St. Albert’s Remembrance Day services during the many years he has been a local member. For many years Carter has also represented veterans at the Paul Kane High School Remembrance Day ceremony, a service the legion offers to schools throughout St. Albert.
“The legion is so important for ex-military people – the camaraderie and socializing. There’s always a lot going on here that keeps us connected,” says Carter. “But ultimately, it’s about service to the vets.”
Some 100 members recently marked the branch’s 60th anniversary with an October open house and dinner celebration that brought together veterans, St. Albert’s mayor, a presentation on Vimy and family members of the legion’s founding father Jim Rogers. The countless celebrations, photos, ceremonies, building changes and shared stories remembered on such an occasion are a reminder of the important place the legion holds in the city, says St. Albert Legion secretary Al Whittal.
The now 600-member strong private club has indeed grown and changed since its start in 1957, when legion meetings were held at the home of Jim and Velma Rogers (the newly formed Ladies Auxiliary would meet upstairs while the men met in the basement). Incorporated that year, and granted a charter in 1958, the St. Albert Legion grew quickly from a humble home gathering place to an egg-grading station and then a Quonset hut bought from the Kingsway Branch in Edmonton. The hut was moved to the space across from where it now stands on Taché St. (now occupied by the seniors’ centre) and given a 99-year lease from the town of St. Albert for just $1.
The St. Albert Legion of the 1960s and early ’70s saw booming membership and a thriving social scene – community dances with lively piano playing, square dancing (maybe a jitterbug here and there), pipers’ parades and pints. The legion founded the St. Albert Soap Box Derby and Poppy Fund essay contests during this time too.
The Legion Hall we see today at 6 Taché St. was built in 1976. It has undergone occasional renovations/upgrades to the 100-seat lounge/bar and kitchen area, as well as the 75-seat games room with snooker table, and TV screens. During years of financial hardship and waning membership, the legion sold the adjacent Cornerstone Hall. That space now hosts private wedding receptions, conferences, banquets and other events.
Though it has a vibrant, dedicated membership and 15-person board of directors today, the St. Albert Legion has faced challenges similar to many community organizations. Boasting up to 1,300 members in the 1970s, an aging veteran population and competition from other community social clubs (the neighbouring curling club and seniors’ centre, for example) still present a challenge, according to St. Albert Legion president Gerry Vercammen.
“Some may think of the legion as just a veteran’s club, serving cheap food and beer, and organizing the city’s Remembrance Day ceremony, but that just scratches the surface,” says Vercammen, a retired police officer who is an example of the changes the legion has made through the years, opening its doors to non-military members. “There may be a perception of a members-only, ‘old boy’s club’. And while the legion used to be made up of mostly World War One, (World War) Two and Korean War vets, now there are members who fought in Afghanistan, their families and interested community members like me too – people who like to belong and want to support the legion’s work.”
“World events bring the military to the fore of public consciousness,” adds Whittal. “When Canadian soldiers went to Afghanistan, or when the Canadian soldier was killed by a gunman in Ottawa a few years ago, our membership grew then too.”
Vercammen points to a thriving competitive dart league (some 14 dart boards dot the lounge), as well as a Tuesday night darts fun league, a bridge/crib league and ongoing snooker play that brings members in. “On a busy Saturday night in the lounge, sometimes only 10 per cent of those here are members. (The weekly meat draws remain a popular pull for members and guests alike). The face of the legion is changing, but never the focus,” he says.
“You can’t even squeeze in on Remembrance Day after the outdoor ceremony. It’s the busiest day of the year here,” adds Carter.
Whittal says that on a busy summer afternoon, the surrounding St. Albert Farmers’ Market brings newcomers in for a cold beer and a break too. Families and children are always welcome in the legion too, and while visitors can come in (just sign the guest book), memberships are encouraged. Ordinary memberships apply to serving or ex-service military, RCMP and city police, but there are associate (child/spouse of ordinary members) and affiliate memberships too.
“Our doors are always open to new members and guests, and you don’t need to have a military background to join. The Ladies Auxiliary welcomes newcomers too,” adds Vercammen. “The lounge and games room are relaxing and cozy; a great place for anyone to visit with friends.”
In support of its primary goal of serving veterans in the community, the St. Albert Legion has donated to area seniors’ care homes, sponsored individual bursaries, and given to organizations such as the Sturgeon Hospital, Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, Salvation Army Kettle Fund, sports teams and the St. Albert air cadets. The legion is also the official sponsor for the local army cadets group. Funds raised through the annual Poppy Blitz (the legion’s major fundraiser, bringing in over $60,000 yearly) can only be used for charitable purposes outside of the Legion building itself, leaving yearly membership fees ($45 seniors/$60 adults) hall rentals (birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas parties) and smaller fundraisers (raffles, draws, special events) to keep the club running.
In the last year, Kelly’s Catering has come on board to run the legion kitchen, offering new features like a monthly karaoke night/supper event. “Whatever changes the legion makes, it will always advocate for care and benefits for all who have served,” adds Whittal.
Visitors and guests are welcome (coffee at 8 a.m. Mon.-Sat.) or during lounge hours from 11 a.m. For booking dances, dinners or special events/celebrations, call the office at 780-458-3330, email firstname.lastname@example.org or see the website stalbertlegion.com.