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Life is busy, isn’t it for most of us. November and December are two of the busiest months in my year. Remembrance Day (Nov. 11th) is the most important day of the Legion year. At the same time we start taking applications for Christmas hampers. Intertwined in there, I have to show up at the office to make a few bucks to fund my volunteer time.

I was a guest at Rotary this past Monday to deliver a talk on the Legion in the community. I am sharing my talk with you:

When I was asked to speak this evening about the Legion in the community, I have to admit I did a bit of a gulp. I know our local branch does a lot in and for the community as do branches throughout the country. To assemble that knowledge into a brief speech is a bit daunting.

Where to begin. Don’t all groups start with a mission statement?

Our mission is to serve veterans, and their dependents, promote remembrance and act in the service of Canada and its communities.

The first two elements of our mission are pretty specific, to serve veterans and their dependents and to promote remembrance. It’s the acting in the service of Canada and its communities where the picture grows pretty large. Tonight, I think the best I can do is bring you an overview and a bit of a snapshot.

The Legion is actually made up of two distinct elements, the branch and the Ladies Auxiliary, which is separately chartered but under the guidance of the branch. LA members can hold membership in the branch and many do, which creates considerable overlap between the two groups as it is not uncommon for members of the LA to be serving on the branch executive and vice versa.

Locally, the Ladies Auxiliary form the catering part of our work and when called upon they support the branch activities. So, in a very real sense, the work of the branch is the work of the LA.

The Legion is the largest veterans organization in Canada with about 360,000 Life, Ordinary, Associate and Affiliate members in 1500 branches. We are a non-profit organization which is supported through dues and fundraising activities. Many people are surprised to learn the Legion does not receive financial support from the government.

Formed in 1926. bringing together several veterans groups and the British Ex Servicemans League (BESL), the Legion was meant to serve the returning veterans as places for them to get together. It was also a force to advocate for the needs of our veterans. The passing of the War Veterans Allowance Act in 1930 was one of the first major accomplishments in the battle to secure veterans the care they deserved. The Act won financial assistance for veterans who didn’t qualify for disability pensions but had been incapacitated by their war service.

As a result of Legion lobbying over the last 80+ years, Canada provides one of the best programs of care for our war veterans of any country in the world. Much more is needed to be done and continues to be worked towards. The Veterans Independence Program is a success story which entitles veterans to ongoing assistance with personal care, housecleaning, yard work, snow removal etc this enables them to remain in their homes for as long as possible.

Locally, our Branch Service Officer makes an effort to reach out to veterans and their dependents in the community. His goal is to make veterans aware of the programs available to them and to advocate for those who are trying to access programs and encountering difficulties. He’s backed up by knowledgeable and dedicated Service Officers at zone, district, provincial and dominion command.

During WW2 the Legion was active in providing in theatre comforts, canteens, entertainment etc. These efforts continued during the Korean War right through until today with our support of the troops in Afghanistan. There are currently a wide range of projects ongoing for troop support including raising funds for the Troop Morale Fund. Care packages are regularly assembled by branches for forwarding to other levels of command and ultimately distributed to the troops.

For our aging veterans in facilities like Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, the Tri-District Hospital Fund draws thousands of dollars annually from branches in districts D, E & F which takes in all of Toronto, east to Belleville and north to Haliburton. These funds see to the personal comforts of those veterans, trips out of the facility to activities and the purchase of equipment for their needs.

Most people are familiar with the annual poppy campaign. It serves to raise millions each year which is used to assist needy veterans and their families, purchase medical appliances, fund medical research and training, provide bursaries for the children and grandchildren of veterans and a range of other services for our veterans. More than $8million is distributed annually from this campaign.

The other purpose of the poppy campaign is to promote remembrance of the sacrifice of the 117,000 Canadians who have died in service to this country in our armed forces since WW1. There are 18 million poppies and 70,000 wreaths, crosses and sprays distributed annually.

The poppy is but one way the Legion works to promote remembrance. Remembrance Day, which we just recently observed, came about due to the work of the Legion’s predecessor the BESL,  as it pressed for the Armistice Day Act of 1921 to enshrine November 11th at 11am as the one distinct observance for the nation to pay tribute to those “who gave their lives that freedom might prevail”. This day has become a sacred trust of the Royal Canadian Legion.

Our national war memorial, was pushed for by the BESL. The design was accepted in 1925, took until 1932 to be completed in England. It was broken down into 35 containers and brought from England in 1937 for reassembly. The Legion was involved in every phase of the memorial coming into being including the unveiling in May 1939 by King George VI in Ottawa.

The Legion sees to Remembrance services at thousands of cenotaphs across the country every year.

In 1999 the Legion undertook to create the “2 minute Wave of Silence”. It was and continues to be an effort to encourage all Canadians to come to a stop at 11am on Nov. 11th no matter where they are to remember the price of our freedoms. It is why we ask the police to halt traffic moving around the park here in Colborne during the silence. Many businesses, stores and even factories across the country take part in this every year.

At the foot of the national war memorial lies the Tomb of the Unknown soldier. The tomb contains the remains of an unknown soldier from the Vimy area of France. It was brought home to Canada and placed in the tomb in May 2000 as part of the Legion’s millennium project.

I had occasion to visit the memorial a few years ago, there were two moments which stood out for me from that visit. As I circled the memorial I was startled and delighted to find that two of the 22 figures representing all the branches of the services in WW1 were women. A rather progressive statement for a memorial constructed in an era when women’s service to our country was often ignored.

The second was when I walked over to the Tomb of the Unknown soldier on that frigidly cold day. As I stood there looking down it was hard to believe that this one symbol could carry the power to represent the horrific losses we have sustained for our freedom, but it does.

The Legion’s youth education committee works diligently in our schools to bring the message of remembrance to successive generations of Canadians. In addition to presentations and materials brought into the schools each year, the Legion runs a Poster, Poem and Essay contest each year which invites children from all levels to express their sense of remembering. I’ve seen and read some incredible depictions from youth of all ages.

Just recently I was shown a poem, written by a 13 year old, which captured the experience of standing on the bridges over the highway of heroes so powerfully that it sent shivers through some who read it. The young care, they just need a way to express themselves. Her poem is part of this years contest.

The Legion supports pilgrimages to foreign battlefields that young people take part in. Just recently the Colborne branch contributed funds to help send some ENSS students to a pilgrimage to Vimy which will take place next year.

While the Legion may have started out to serve our veterans, it didn’t take long for those early veterans to realize that it was impossible to serve the veterans and their families without serving the communities, our country and sometimes even beyond.

Some of the most recent figures from across the country puts the Legion’s economic impact at $375million per year. This includes:

•    $2.1million direct support to needy veterans & 472,000 hours of volunteer time
•    $1.6million direct support to over 300,000 seniors & 560,000 hours volunteer time
•    $259million committed to veteran & seniors housing projects with 7,000 units in place
•    $2.4million direct support to youth activities & 167,000 volunteer hours
•    $8.6million support to charities & 198,000 volunteer hours to community service
•    $4.3million in property taxes
•    $59million in wages to 1,352 full time & 2,608 part-time employees
•    $24million in maintenance & service costs for branches

From the young to seniors, Legions throughout the country are involved in programs which benefit our communities even when they don’t have a direct impact for veterans. Many of these programs were started by veterans and are being carried on by successive generations of members as part of carrying the torch they have entrusted to us.

A very strong example of this in Colborne has been the Christmas Hamper program which is currently underway. This program, which has brought the Legion together with Rotary, the schools, churches and businesses in the community, assembles and distributes Christmas hampers to those in our community who would otherwise have a rather bleak Christmas.

The Hamper program was the brainchild of Comrade Buff Jack, a nursing sister who served during the Italian campaign of WW2. Comrade Buff had a very strong sense of social justice and the need for groups to help in the community.

She was pragmatic enough to realize that rather than having several groups all doing their own thing, that one group taking the point and coordinating the effort would allow a greater bang for the buck and more benefit for those who were truly in need by avoiding duplication. She established the liaison with the Salvation Army which remains in place today. We’re the one community which the Salvation Army sends the applicants directly to without vetting them through their process.

She set the pattern and the approach to the hampers which has been sustained for the last thirty some years it has operated.

For anyone who knew Buff, the lady was a force to be reckoned with, if there was any hesitation on the part of the then Branch leadership to supporting that program, she would have had them quickly in retreat. It has become an absolute given that all activities in the banquet room will come to a halt for at least a week before Christmas and the hampers will take over.

The program has evolved some over the years but I suspect Buff would be okay with that. The food bank operating at the United Church was started during the early 90s with funds the Legion had provided to the Rev. Victor Parsons as a thanks from the branch for his many years of faithful service as our branch Chaplain. Eventually the branch started using some of the surplus from the hamper drive to assist the food bank’s operations throughout the year. Food donations left after the hamper program all go to the food bank.

Comrade Don Prentice took an active role in operating the food bank after Rev Parsons retired. He was also the comrade to whom Buff entrusted the operation of the Christmas hamper program  when she became unable to carry on with it. In working very closely with Comrade Prentice as the branch coordinated a fire relief effort after an apartment fire in Colborne in 1995, we realized how intertwined work like assisting fire victims, the food bank and the hampers are in the life of our community.

The Community Services committee was established as a permanent standing committee of the branch. The funds which are collected at Christmas time continue to work in the community throughout the year primarily in contributing towards the ongoing operations of the food bank. The chits for dairy, meat, produce etc which are issued from the food bank are paid for from the community services account. The fund also provides monthly assistance to the breakfast program at the Colborne Public School.

Since establishing the committee, this year was the first year we almost didn’t make it from one hamper campaign to the other with funds to assist the food bank. In August we had to ask the food bank to reduce the amount of chits they were giving out and just as we were on the verge of running out of funds in early October, a donation arrived which helped to tide the fund over. We’re planning on ongoing fundraising for the account in order to try to avoid that next year. Sign of the times and our economy.

When the Kinsman Club of Colborne folded John Boreham, who was to later become Legion President, was instrumental in approaching the Legion to ensure some of their community activities didn`t die with them. These include the Santa Claus parade with which the branch partners with the Optimist club, the Labour Day BBQ and the Mother`s Day breakfast. The branch has since added a Father`s Day breakfast to the lineup.

Of these activities, only the Labour Day BBQ are operated as a fundraiser, the other activities are still operated as a community activity which is what the Kinsman wanted them to be. We try to at least break even on them but if we lose a bit it doesn`t immediately raise a call to cancel them.

Even when we run events to raise funds for the branch we always try to keep the costs reasonable. Thus, you can attend two public dinners a month which cost $10 per person for a home cooked meal or as our Ways N Means Chairman calls it “good ol country cooking“.

Like the other groups in town, the Legion takes a turn at Meals on Wheels each year. Our month is November, which produces some interesting scheduling challenges around Remembrance Day.

The Legion participated in the planning and activities for the 150th Anniversary celebration this past year and will be taking part in the Olympic Torch run by providing hot drinks and a warming centre. We regularly participate in the Trash N Treasures and the Apple Blossom Festival.

The last couple of years we have hosted a Canada Day event and hope to build on this with the township and other groups to establish a truly Cramahe Canada Day event.

We are regularly on the bridges when our soldiers are brought along the Highway of Heroes. We maintain an email list which anyone in the community can join to providing notification of when the repatriations are taking place. We also send out information about what is happening at the branch.

When we first started going to the bridge about three years ago, Mandy Martin approached me and told me that we were the first visible Legion presence which had appeared on the bridges in Northumberland county. We quickly put out a challenge to the other branches along the 401 and now they all take part, including both Warkworth and Campbellford who can be found on the Lake Road overpass.

On Remembrance Day this year, the branch unveiled a Wall of Honour which displays a picture of each of the 134 Canadians killed in Afghanistan. It is what you will see first after entering the branch at our east door. The wall was funded completely by donations from members of the branch. Also on Remembrance Day for the first time in my years as a branch member we were honoured to have the presence of a Silver Cross mother, Diane Knight, to lay a wreath in honour of the parents and spouses of those who have lost loved ones.

During the last three years we have been developing a liaison with the 429 Squadron based at CFB Trenton who have paraded with us on Remembrance Day. As the relationship develops we hope to see more events taking place with them. The 429 Squadron looks after the C-17 transport planes which are the heavy lift transport planes the government bought a few years ago..

The branch regularly provides space for community groups to meet, without charge. This allows small groups like line-dancing, exercise classes, and the 55+ Club to meet regularly. The hall is also donated for flu clinics, foot care clinics and the annual Stew Off among other activities. The branch is also available as a cooling centre during heat waves and we’ve worked with the Township on emergency planning.

The branch for several years has struggled financially which served to demoralize the members. Many believed it was only a matter of time until the branch closed and pulled back from volunteering for what they saw as a lost cause. Membership took a drop and Ontario Command was watching the branch closely.

About three years ago a group of us agreed to attempt a turn around. Each committed to a year of doing all they could to stop the slide. What we didn’t know until shortly afterwards, the decision wasn’t a moment too soon, Command had decided the branch would be given another six months maximum to improve or they would close it.

I have a strong belief that small groups can do great things if they are all willing to pull together. From that core group of members we have managed to expand our volunteer circle and now have a group which is increasingly confident that this branch will continue to serve this community for many years to come. Command has removed the red-flag, membership is again rising, the bank account is holding its own and morale has improved.

This past year we have received a Trillium grant to improve the building and rebuild the handicap access ramp and we’ve also received from Cramahe council tax relief in the form of a by-law exempting us from the municipal portion of our property taxes for ten years. Both of these benefits will help to ensure our future stability and continued work in our community.