They are still regarded as the living icon of Remembrance Day. Each and every year we roll out the red carpet for the men and women of the Royal Canadian Legion and put them front and centre at all our Remembrance Day parades and commemorations.
It only seems right, as the Legion was founded in 1926 as an advocacy group of veterans helping other veterans and their families. It was formed that year when a variety of veteran advocacy groups decided to merge their resources with the sole purpose of standing up as a single voice to ensure that government and society fulfilled its sacred commitment to veterans and that veterans and their families received the care that they need.
What has happened to the Legion in recent years can only be described as a devolution of it founding principles. While it bravely continues to maintain its ceremonial façade, the real face of today’s Legion is an organization staffed increasingly by non-veterans. Because of this the Legion has lost touch with today’s veteran community and their needs. Rather than being a strong voice for modern veterans against government intransigence, today’s Legion is widely seen as a government lapdog preferring to pander and pose with politicians. In the meantime it largely flouts its legacy of respectability by serving as a local social club and drinking establishment. This is why most of today’s veterans, myself included, see no reason social or otherwise to join the Royal Canadian Legion.
Today’s Legion is the victim of its own insular arrogance from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when it failed to re-tool and re-focus its advocacy function for the new generation of post-Korean War veterans. These troops may have fought in different types of conflicts, but fought and served nonetheless. Surely they knew then that the First and Second World War cohort was not immortal and was destined to pass into memory.
Instead the Legion chose to open up its membership to non-veterans. Increasingly it is these people, who never spent a day in a military uniform, serving in leadership functions within the Legion. It may sound amazing, but almost every adult resident of Canada can be a member of the Royal Canadian Legion. You can be an associate member of the Legion if you are related to someone who served in the military, coast guard or police. You can also be a member if you are related to an associate (non-veteran) member. If you are still not eligible you can join as an affiliate voting member provided that you are a “Canadian citizen or Commonwealth subjects from an allied nation and support the aims and objectives of the Royal Canadian Legion.” Non-voting member status is available to anyone else who fails to meet the above criteria.
These non-veteran members of the Legion can wear the Legion “uniform” and most can vote on the policy, priorities, and direction of the Legion. They can even wear the Legion’s own service and merit medals, which are frequently mistaken by members of the public as bona-fide military medals.
Whenever I am invited to a Legion function, I never see anything that can convince me that this is an organization that a long-service veteran like myself can find a connection to.
What the battle-scarred Legion founders wanted from their purely veteran organization is clearly stated in Service, the Legion’s own official history. High among the Legion’s founding aims and objectives was the promise “to see the maintenance and comfort of those require special treatment: the disabled the sick aged and needy.” Also listed among the Legion’s founding objectives was to “assist ex-servicemen to secure not less than the recognized standard of rates of wages in accordance with their ability.”
Nowhere can there be a more glaring example of the Legion’s failure to connect with today’s younger veterans than in its flip-flop on the much maligned New Veterans Charter
Where the Legion failed was in the fact that, until recently, its assistance programs failed to fully and aggressively embrace younger veterans who may have seen full-blown combat in places such as Cyprus, Bosnia and Afghanistan, and actually treat them with the same attention and reverence as Second World War veterans. Granted the Legion is trying to play catch-up. But their success is, to be polite, not yet assured.
And nowhere can there be a more glaring example of the Legion’s failure to connect with today’s younger veterans than in its flip-flop on the much maligned New Veterans Charter, passed by the Liberals in 2005 and implemented by Harper in 2006. In a clear abrogation of one of its founding objectives — “to secure adequate pensions, allowances, grants and war gratuities for ex-servicemen” — the Legion in 2005 came out in favour of the New Veterans Charter, which eliminated disability pensions for veterans wounded after 2006. The Legion’s then-president Ms. Mary-Ann Burdett herself told the Senate finance committee “there should be no doubt whatsoever that the Royal Canadian Legion fully supports this initiative … we want this legislation.”
Well, they got it.
And yet, now that the Charter is widely recognized as a disaster in urgent need of total overhaul, today’s Legion website states that the organization “never fully or unconditionally supported the New Veterans Charter.”
Nothing short of a drastic restructuring back to its founding principles, attitude, and composition will save the Legion from sinking into further irrelevance among today’s veterans. But that’s no less than what Canadians military veterans deserve.
Robert Smol holds a master of arts in war studies from the Royal Military College and served in the Canadian Armed Forces for over 20 years, retiring as an intelligence officer in 2004. He is currently an educator and writer in Toronto.