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NDG Legion metamorphosis draws on community

Dave McCrindle – First Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Kris Petersen – Danish Navy, Branch Vice-President Frank Stanway – Second Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Jim McCann – First Canadian Parachute Battalion, Branch President Stuart Vallières – RCAF Bomber Command Sixth Group 427 Squadron, Helen Miller – Widow of navy photographer Eugene Miller, and Bob Venor – First Batallion PPCLI (photo: Robert Galbraith)

NDG’s Royal Canadian Legion has felt the pinch of demographic shift and declining membership as much as any other. Now, after taking stock and revamping, it’s rebounded in the neighbourhood with a fresh facelift for the premises, more community events, and an opening up of the ranks.

“We had too few people doing too much,” says Branch President Stuart Vallieres of their efforts to cope. “In the past we’ve been seen more as a place exclusively for veterans, centered around, you know... drinking.” But that’s the old Legion. “Now it’s more of a community centre, a little more ‘dignified.’ We opened up the rules a lot. You don’t have to have any military affiliation – in the past you had to have served.”

Since a bit of outreach was in order, “we examined our options and figured our greatest asset is the building, and that if we made it more appealing that there’d be opportunities for renting it... so we put a lot of effort into improving the property. When you walk in, it doesn’t smell like a dirty ashstray anymore.”

The makeover has attracted a slew of bookings as a reception and performance venue, but the mainstay of the establishment remains the fifty-plus crowd. “For seniors it’s a wonderful place. They can come here Friday afternoons, the most popular day, and make a meal of it, and they have comfortable surroundings and activities that are senior-friendly,” he says, citing bingo, darts, and cribbage as top draws.

The higher profile is “probably one of the best things that’s happened to NDG,” according to the branch’s barkeep and Booking Officer Serge Lewenszpil. “It’s kind of giving it a resurgence. We went through a dry spell, with the policing actions all over the world... people who served in Cyprus or the Middle East,” he says, haven’t exactly swelled the membership rolls. “The guys who come back from Afghanistan are a lot like the vets from Vietnam – shell shocked, quite a few committed suicide – PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] is a big problem... a lot of them don’t realize that the Legion is the one place they can come out and relax, and I think it’s going to take another year or two before they actually find their way into the Legions. A lot of them are still in the service, so they haven’t come out yet.”

An impromptu roundtable on the Afghanistan mission finds every position on the spectrum represented.

For the dean of the group, 96-year-old Arthur Cochrane, it’s a matter of respecting alliances: “If the Americans are there we should be there. If anything ever happened to us, we would lean on them.” Compatriot Jim McCann concurs on the importance of supporting the US, “because Canada’s its number one ally.”

“It’s a UN-backed war,” says First Batallion PPCLI vet Bob Venor, referring to the Security Council resolutions that sent troops in originally. “These are fighting soldiers that are in there, well trained guys – they want to go, and they’re all volunteers.”

But such sentiments have dwindled well into minority territory with this group. “Why we’re there is a wonder to me,” says Vallieres, citing prior failures of the British and Soviets to exercise control over the area. “Why would anybody else get involved?” Having gone in “because they thought a lot of human rights were being abused,” he says, “now we’re finding out the people we’re trying to help are the very people that are keeping the war going.”

Branch VP Frank Stanway shares that disillusionment. “I don’t think they’ve figured out a way to win it. They don’t seem to have, because we’re still there after all this time... and we don’t seem to have done a great deal of good promoting our own image, with the Taliban making us out to be a bunch of bandits and murderers.”

Others were never on board in the first place. “My view hasn’t changed – I was against it then, I’m against it now,” says the West Nova Scotia Regiment’s Mickey Laughlin. “There’s no purpose for the war in Afghanistan – just following along with the Americans.”

Thin support on the home front doesn’t help recruitment either. “It’s hard to get the younger people,” Venor says of Afghanistan vets. “Sometimes they like to make a cut and forget about it, to say ‘I’m finished with it...’ When I came back I didn’t want anything to do with the Legion... but later on you realize, this is where you can find brothers in arms. The Legion might not exist in 20 years – a lot of them are closing. In the small towns it’s very active, but in the big towns there’s too much going on. A lot of us have reached a stage where we’re less mobile and less able to get here.”

Still roughly 200 strong, the NDG Legion remains active with youth outreach as well, with efforts at Canadian military heritage preservation, scholarships for students, awards for RCMP cadets, and sponsorship of a cadet squadron. Their hall is “a very good space” for public functions according to Vallieres, and available cheap at around $200 a night including bartending. Saturday, November 8 at 7 pm the branch holds its annual Remembrance Dinner Dance, and Sunday, November 9 at 2 pm a march to the cenotaph at Girouard Park will be followed by an open house. A second open house follows Tuesday, November 11 at 1 pm. Senior bingo is every Friday at 1:30 pm, and cribbage and darts are every Tuesday from 7 pm. The NDG Legion is at 5455 de Maisonneuve W.

Info: 514-489-9425



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