Louis Patrick, president of the Royal Canadian Legion branch in Delaware, Ontario, says booking a band to play once a month is one way the club has tried to attract new members. Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press

Original Published on Aug 08, 2022 at 08:31

By Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Louis Patrick wants to get one thing straight — Legion halls, he says, aren’t an “old men’s drinking club.”

“It’s not a whole bunch of old men there. There’s all different ages,” said Patrick, president of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 598 in Delaware, a community west of London.

Still, the Delaware branch, like many in Southwestern Ontario and across Canada, is trying to reinvent itself to attract younger people as the number of Canadian military veterans and their families, once the lifeblood of the service clubs, dwindle away.

Additions pitched to the young might include live bands and an end to a once-iron rule in Legion branches requiring everyone to remove their hats when they come in.

“We’re trying to do a band a month. We’ll bring in some groups that are geared to the 40 to 50 age group,” Patrick said. “We also support more local bands, and they bring in even younger people to come and play.”

For Jim Hoefnagels and his Strathroy-based band Speed Wobble, performing at Legion branches across the region has become an opportunity to hone their craft and support Legions in need of more members.

“The whole idea,” he said, “is that we get our friends to go and fill the place up, and then hopefully, the word gets out more and more.”

Live entertainment, barbecues and sports are among the things some Legions are using to cater to a younger crowd.

The statistics suggest there’s no time to lose.

Once practically as common as banks and churches in Canada, the number of Legion branches has fallen for decades, down to 1,350 from 1,600 only a decade ago.

In a country in which more than one million people served in the Second World War, only about 25,500 veterans of that conflict and the Korean War of the 1950s remain, according to Veterans Affairs Canada. The average age of the country’s surviving Second World War veterans was 96 last year.

“We need to get the younger people involved and become members so that we can keep the Legion going,” Richard McClenaghan, past president of Legion Branch 410 in Port Stanley, said.

He noted the number of veterans alive in Canada today is dramatically lower than in the United States. “We’re running out of veterans, and that’s why now, we’re allowing everybody to join.”

Just 15 per cent of the Legion membership today — 250,000 people, down from 600,000 in 1984 — are age 55 and below.

Nationwide, Legions have taken different approaches, from making their halls “modern and bright” to hosting community-themed events to draw a wider range of people, said Nujma Bond, spokesperson for the Royal Canadian Legion.

“We’re updating some outdated rules and focusing on creating a great overall experience,” for example, by adding perks such as discounts with partner organizations and allowing members to join any local branch online, she said.

Some branches, like the one in Port Stanley, have gone as far as removing their no hat mandate, a longstanding tradition done out of respect for fallen soldiers or the Queen.

“Ten or 15 people who are regulars wear their hats all the time,” McClenaghan said, cautioning they cannot be worn sideways or backwards.

“And it does seem to bring in some of the younger members and younger people.”

Despite veterans dwindling in numbers, Legions are making inroads, with new members joining daily, Bond said. More than 15,000 members have joined in the last year, with one-third of new members 40 or younger.

In Grand Bend, membership remains strong. But keeping those people engaged is the hard part, said Rose Shaddock, treasurer of Branch 498. “Even if you have a lot of members, you don’t have a lot of active members,” she said.

In addition to hosting performances and karaoke nights, partnering with a local school has helped to promote the Legion branch.

“That gets some younger people involved and interested, and more aware of not just the history and the veterans and the veterans’ services, but that it’s a community,” she said, adding the branch is also an emergency shelter and seniors centre.

But those below 30 are not the only group Legions are trying to attract. “All membership is important,” Patrick said.

“If we don’t have members involved, we can’t support our veterans,” he said, adding the Delaware branch raises money for various organizations and programs for homeless veterans.

This item reprinted with permission from the Free Press, London, Ontario