By Sean Bruyea and Robert Smol
For the last 90 years Canadians have looked upon the Royal Canadian Legion as the living embodiment of Remembrance Day, keeping the memory of our veterans’ sacrifices alive. Likewise, successive governments have recognized the Legion as the primary institutional stakeholder when it comes to setting policy for veterans.
Today, however, this alleged veteran organization has devolved into an institutional lie. In spite of the deference it continues to receive, the Legion is now little more than a social club consisting primarily of civilian wannabe and “wish-I-had-been” soldiers imitating the façade of military life and sacrifice.
So it should not come as a surprise that, in recent battles with Ottawa over veteran benefits, the Legion either found itself lost in the fog or, worse, siding with government. Meanwhile, various municipal governments grant tax-free status to several Legion branches.
The Canadian public, which almost universally welcomes Legion uniforms at public events, needs to know the truth about what the Legion has become. More importantly, modern veterans like us owe it to the Legion’s battle-scarred founders to refocus the Legion back to its founding principles as an organization of veterans standing up for other veterans against government neglect and intransigence.
It never fails to shock uninformed members of the public just how unmilitary and veteran-less the Legion has become. At one time, approximately 50 per cent of Canada’s more than 1 million Second World War veterans belonged to the Legion. Currently, there are nearly 700,000 serving and retired Canadian Armed Forces personnel. As of October 1, 2015, the Legion had 265,000 members. Of those, more than 200,000 never served in the military! This is contrary to the Legion’s specious claim on its website that its membership “includes approximately 100,000 Veterans.”
The truth is, online documents show military veterans are lumped into a category of 64,000 “Ordinary” members. However, this category also includes militaries of allied forces and all NATO nations as well as war correspondents, YMCA, Knights of Columbus, firefighters and forestry services who served in wartime. Coast guard, provincial and city police services also qualify. Of the estimated maximum 35,000 to 50,000 military veterans in the Legion, more than half are likely WWII veterans. That leaves approximately 17,500 to 25,000 who might be post-Korean War veterans or less than four per cent of all CAF veterans and only 10 per cent of Legion membership. The bottom-line: the Legion apparently doesn’t care enough about veterans to know how many veterans are Legion members.
Look around. Any adult walking the street qualifies to be a uniformed, marching, medal-bearing, saluting, colour-carrying member of the Royal Canadian Legion. Legion membership is open to any “citizen of Canada, or a Commonwealth or Allied country” who is of “voting age” and “agrees to abide by the Royal Canadian Legion Constitution, rules and General By-Laws.”
The result: failing to understand the military culture and sacrifices is endemic in an organization which, with increasing illegitimacy, has a legal monopoly on all images of poppies related to remembrance and sacrifice. For all its grandiose rhetoric about being “Guardians of Remembrance,” the Legion’s overwhelming civilian membership does much to imitate, trivialize and therefore dishonour sacred symbols of military service.
Unlike any other Commonwealth nation, Canada’s Legion awards medals for administering the affairs of the Legion, including recreational activities for the elderly. Legion medals include a Meritorious Service Medal and a Palm Leaf. To an uninformed public, these Legion-exclusive “medals” can be easily mistaken for bona fide military service medals. And one can purchase only from the “Guardians of Remembrance” poppy earrings, umbrellas, tea towels, toques, mitts, and poppy puppies, giving the appearance more of a commercial monopoly than a sacred responsibility.
To add denial to dishonour, the Legion, in its last National Convention, voted not to allow its minority military veteran members to wear their specialist badges such as paratrooper wings and submariner badges. These distinctions are rightfully worn with pride to identify hard-earned specialized skills that often carried them through combat. Yet the same Legion delegates voted that all its members could wear a forget-me-not flower pin to commemorate the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel, although the tragically few Newfoundlanders who actually fought and survived that horrible First World War engagement have long since passed.
Community focus at the cost of veteran advocacy
Why did the Legion turn out this way? The Legion has admitted a prevalent “grumpiness” to potential new members. However, institutionalized age discrimination and the self-destructive veteran disease of one-upmanship are at the root of the problem. WWII and Korean War veterans during the 1950s through to the early 2000s saw CAF service as inferior. For much of this time, younger veterans could encounter a culture wherein the only true ‘veteran’ worthy of Legion support and recognition were those who served during ‘real’ wars, recognition restricted to two World Wars and, begrudgingly later, Korea. Conveniently ignored was the fact that many World War veterans never actually experienced combat.
As a result, younger ex-service men and women who may have endured full-blown combat operations in places such as Cyprus, the former Yugoslavia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan were not seen as bona fide veterans. No doubt history will record the 50 years following the Korean War as a lost opportunity for the Legion to help CAF veterans — the leading edge of whom are now well into their 80s.
Instead, the Legion opted to offset its declining and dying veteran membership with a new “community-based” focus. From a policy perspective, this meant shifting efforts to charitable work in support of local communities. Administratively, this meant opening its membership and, ultimately, its executive positions, including its Provincial and National Commands, to civilians.
This ageism and rampant superiority complex combined with the rapid devolution of the Legion into a civilian-led and -managed organization left little to no incentive for younger veterans, such as ourselves, to join. And frankly, whenever either of us are invited to a Legion function and can overlook the “grumpiness,” we see little shared experience and knowledge of the military that would make us feel like we belong.
Selling out Modern Veterans: Legion support for the New Veterans Charter
By far the single most tragic and costly end result of this military devolution of the Legion can be seen in its open support for controversial veterans’ benefits that were rammed through parliament in 2005 without a minute of debate or a committee of elected officials to study it. This legislation, commonly known as the New Veterans Charter, replaced lifelong tax-free monthly pensions for military injuries with highly inadequate one-time lump sum payments. It has been a lightning rod for veteran disaffection ever since.
Veterans still scratch their heads wondering why Legion National President Mary-Ann Burdett signed a blank cheque to government while proudly proclaiming to a Senate committee: “There should be no doubt whatsoever that the Royal Canadian Legion fully supports this initiative … we want this legislation.” Yet, astute concerns articulated by the Legion’s largest provincial command in Ontario just one year later were ignored in the national headquarters’ public declarations.
Why did all this happen? Only an organization acting as a true advocacy group for veterans would have the political chutzpah to sacrifice its popularity among politicians for doing what is right by its principles. In 2005, the Legion was no longer this form of organization.
In the meantime, organizations with a fraction of the membership (such as the rapidly growing Veterans Canada) are perceived as carrying equal or more clout in defending the rights of injured veterans to an often-insensitive federal bureaucracy.
What Needs to be Done?
If there is a glimmer of hope it would be that there is a groundswell of civilians and veterans in the organization demanding that the Legion make itself more responsive and accountable to the veteran community. In 2016 some brave and thoughtful members of Legion Branch 15 in Brampton, Ontario conducted an online survey where 96.6 per cent of the 1,606 respondents identified as veterans or serving members of the CAF. Of these, 75.8 per cent were not Legion members. An overwhelming majority of this group claimed the reasons why they will not join is that the Legion “is out of touch with the needs of today’s veterans” and “the Legion has too many non-vets in executive positions.”
Among the recommendations put forth by the respondents is elimination of the term “New Veteran” as it promotes segregation, elimination of Legion “medals” and the seemingly obvious, but sadly necessary, demand that the Legion not support “any legislative action that is harmful to veterans.” Not surprisingly, some in the national headquarters appear to have largely dismissed the survey, claiming it is unscientific.
To reverse this membership stampede out the door, the Legion has to regain trust with not just its own members but the wider veteran community. Openness and transparency is a beginning. Headquarters salaries are paid for by membership dues. For Legion branches struggling to make ends meet just to stop the roof from leaking and keep the lights on, subsidizing such exorbitant salaries with membership fees must be disheartening. There is no privacy law that prevents disclosing the salary ranges or the actual salaries of each position in the national headquarters. Likewise, such salaries need to be dramatically curtailed. It just doesn’t look good when the Legion depends upon the sweat of volunteers that are represented by a highly overcompensated national leadership.
In addition to opening its books, the Legion has to stand up to government far more aggressively when it comes to veterans’ benefits. It needs to aggressively focus on and incorporate its founding principles — namely, to “secure adequate pensions, allowances, grants and war gratuities for ex-servicemen, their dependents, and the widows, children and dependents of those who have served, and to labour for honourable provision being made for those who, in declining years, are unable to support themselves.”
No doubt this can only be realized if the Legion takes the government to task at every level and opportunity for its failed policies and neglect of veterans. Certainly a Royal Canadian Legion doing its job will no longer be so popular with politicians who will surely seek refuge from Legion members rather than frequent photo ops. Perhaps a veteran-focused Legion might even lose its tax-free status. But at least the Legion can then stand proud and say that it remained true to the memory of its battle-scarred founders.