Honouring veterans in a pandemic: COVID-19 put Legions at risk of closure

In many ways, COVID-19 exacerbated issues man Legion branches were already facing

COVID-19 has been hard on non-profits and grassroots initiatives across the country – and the Royal Canadian Legion is no exception.

Established in 1925, the non-profit organization supports veterans all over Canada, ensuring their efforts have not been forgotten, but remembered and honoured.

But in recent years, as Second World War veterans age and pass on, many Legions have struggled to maintain membership as the organization strives to participate in local communities and raise funds for youth groups and other initiatives.

“How has COVID overall hurt the legions for support to the community? Huge,” Norm Scott, president of the Greater Victoria-area Langford Legion branch, told Black Press Media in a recent phone interview.

“We can’t open our doors and have social events.”

Norm Scott joined the Legion, 28 years ago because he supports the notion of giving back to veterans, seniors and the community. Starting off as a member, he has been the proud president of Branch 91 for the past six years.

Supporting the community comes from gaming funds, such as hosting meat draws at the branch. But branches have limited their attendance because of safe social distancing protocols, allowing only a limited number of people at a time. Some Legions have made events exclusively to members only.

Flowers are seen floating in the sea during a maritime Remembrance Day ceremony in Burrard Inlet in North Vancouver, B.C., Monday, November, 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Flowers are seen floating in the sea during a maritime Remembrance Day ceremony in Burrard Inlet in North Vancouver, B.C., Monday, November, 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The Langford branch’s lounge has been limited to a maximum capacity of 75-78 people. Before it could host up to 150. COVID-19 has impacted elderly socialization for members who are wary of COVID-19 exposure. Scott offers all avenues of protection, including masks and sanitizing options.

“What we’re finding is a lot of our seniors and members are not coming out due to the safety and comfort of themselves,” Scott said.

ALSO READ: COVID-19 reduces public dimension of Remembrance Day commemorations

With continuous efforts, the branch maintains support for its local food bank, which uses the Legion banquet hall every week, hosting senior dinners and offering meals for Indigenous people. Bursaries are still offered in order to support different organizations. If someone is in need of support, the Legion committee willreview the cause. In September, the branch supported Ruth King elementary school, offering $2,000 for school supplies.

“Part of our mission is supporting youth, seniors and our veterans,” Scott said.

Millions in federal funds set to be distributed to veterans groups

In early October, the federal government announced Bill C-4 as part of its COVID-19 aid package, which will earmark $20 million to veterans’ organizations, including Legion branches. The funds are expected to reach branches by the end of the year.

Back in June, Royal Canadian Legion dominion president Thomas D. Irvine, sent a letter to the Trudeau government asking why businesses were receiving stimulus packages while more than 25 branches were at risk of permanent closure.

“This pandemic has brought much of the country to a standstill, yet many of our branches have found ways to support our communities through sheer good will and the hard work of volunteers,” Irvine said, pointing to homemade meals for veterans and seniors, offering venues for blood donations and making resuable masks.

“This work cannot continue indefinitely without further support.”

There are an estimated 1,350 Legion branches across the country. As provinces see varying trends of high and low case counts in the COVID-19 pandemic, Legions are being impacted differently, based on membership size and location.

In Osoyoos, the Legion which once was able to seat up to 105 people is now limited to 50 under provincial health orders, Legion Branch 173 president Lyle Kent said.

ALSO READ: Legion calls for youthful perspective on Remembrance Day

Money raised from events such as meat draws and Tuesday bingo nights, goes towards providing bursaries for their communities’ local youth, seniors and veterans.

A old photograph is laid among a pile of poppies during a maritime Remembrance Day ceremony in Burrard Inlet in North Vancouver, B.C., Monday, November, 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A old photograph is laid among a pile of poppies during a maritime Remembrance Day ceremony in Burrard Inlet in North Vancouver, B.C., Monday, November, 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Kent was a part of the Army Navy Air Force in White Rock when he was younger. He found himself looking to get away from the business world, when he packed his bags and moved to Osoyoos seven years ago.

Kent knows that many of his branch members come from out-of-province. With COVID, they have lost the majority of their business from people who would typically spend their winter months in the warmer climate of Osoyoos.

Trying to have more people gain a membership with the Osoyoos Legion, Kent has offered free membership for all RCMP officers this year. And Kent says the Osoyoos Legion will continue to work hard in order to stay open.

“We open at 2 p.m. and we close whenever people want to go, usually around 7 p.m., we’re old people, but we have a lot of good fun here.”

Many Legion events set to be invite only

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and the BC Centre for Disease Control have released guidelines for honouring Remembrance Day through ceremonies, suggesting to keep events smaller and outdoors.

“People will need to keep a distance,” Henry said during a news conference on Thursday (Oct. 28). “We’re encouraging particularly veterans or others who are more at risk to be able to participate virtually, and I know the Legion and others are looking at ways to support that happening.”

Planes fly in formation above a large crowd who gathered to honour the fallen during a Remembrance Day ceremony at the War Memorial in Oak Bay, B.C., on Monday, November 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Planes fly in formation above a large crowd who gathered to honour the fallen during a Remembrance Day ceremony at the War Memorial in Oak Bay, B.C., on Monday, November 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Henry, who served as a medical officer in the Royal Canadian Navy for 10 years, also recommended people to order their poppies online this year and abide by any invite-only rules placed by local Legions on Nov. 11.

Those invited to ceremonies are being asked to not attend if they are sick, stay two metres apart and cough into elbows or tissues.

“Stay safe, and please distance yourself,” Scott added. Come Remembrance Day, stay home, be safe. If you wish to go to the cenotaph, remember, distancing is crucial and wear a mask if you’re not sure,” Scott said.

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