By Robert Smol | Nov 10, 2014 8:57 pm | 3 comments
This year, members of the Royal Canadian Legion will be standing front and center at Remembrance Day ceremonies across the country. Since its founding in 1926, the Royal Canadian Legion has come to embody Canada's veteran community and the need to respect and support those who served in our armed forces.
These days, however, the Legion's image is a false front. Once an outspoken advocate for disabled veterans, the Royal Canadian Legion is now widely perceived by younger veterans as the federal government's lapdog, with an increasingly non-veteran, non-military membership out of touch with the military community and its needs.
Every time I am invited to a Legion branch I see little that might make me feel that this is an organization that truly relates to and understands where a modern veteran like me came from. Today's Legion branches are popular and respected drinking establishments that occasionally do good charity work in the community. But I can't trust that today's Legion will ever be able to advocate for my generation of veterans in the same way they once stood for the soldiers of decades past.
Eighty-eight years ago, the Royal Canadian Legion was founded as a group of veterans helping other veterans. The Legion's original mandate set out its duty to act as an advocacy group for the veterans themselves, especially those suffering from hardship and disability. Politicians in the 1920s were just as willing as contemporary ones to disregard and minimize the health, pension and rehabilitation needs of returning soldiers and their families.
The Legion of my father's and grandfather's generation held the government's feet to the fire, making certain that the disabled soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought for Canada were looked after. Not anymore.
Fast forward to more recent years and you find a Legion that has failed miserably to reach out to the post-Korean War community of veterans. For the most part, what you find in the Legion of today is an increasingly non-veteran collection of military groupies. Just how focused is today's Legion on protesting against and shaming the Harper government for its shabby treatment of veterans? Is helping the struggling, destitute and homeless veterans out there just one of the many good charitable efforts of your local Legion branch — or is it their absolute raison d'etre?
No single decision better represents its institutional ignorance and disconnect with the veteran community than the Legion's support of the much-maligned New Veteran Charter at the time it was being implemented in 2005-6. It may come as a surprise to a lot of people that the Legion actually gave the New Veterans Charter its full support back when the legislation was being introduced in 2005.
As a result of this legislation, soldiers disabled while on duty are no longer entitled to disability pensions, but instead receive a one-time lump-sum payment for their injuries.
The Legion is doomed to irrelevance unless it radically rededicates itself as a modern veteran advocacy group. To survive, it must single-mindedly reach out to younger veterans … and challenge the current government's abandonment of modern veterans.
Knowing full-well what the New Veterans Charter was about, then-president of the Legion, Ms. Mary-Ann Burdett, stated before a Senate Committee on May 11, 2005 that "there should be no doubt that whatsoever that the Royal Canadian Legion fully supports this initiative (the New Veterans Charter). We want this legislation."
And they got it. Now, unlike their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers who fought in the First and Second World Wars, members of today's military who become disabled are no longer entitled to disability pensions. The Legion was far too willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt when the New Veterans Charter was being introduced. And though the Legion has since reversed its support for the New Veterans Charter, the Legion-endorsed damage is there each and every time a younger veteran is forced to make do with one-time lump-sum payments.
How could the Royal Canadian Legion have allowed its leadership to support such legislation? Part of the reason might be that it took way too long for the Legion — obsessed with the legacy of the World War II veteran — to recognize that veterans of my generation are indeed military veterans deserving of the same attention and respect. Refusing for so long to recognize younger veterans, such as myself, as bonafide war veterans made it much easier to say that we should not be entitled to the same benefits.
Perhaps the Legion didn't know any better. Demographically and culturally, its membership increasingly is losing touch with the veteran community. As Second World War and Korean War Legion members die off, they are not being replaced with younger veterans — who increasingly see nothing to be gained from Legion membership.
So in a desperate attempt to fill its ranks with new recruits, Legion membership is now open to non-veterans — a policy that would have been unthinkable in its early years. Increasingly, Legion membership — including many of its administrative positions — are made up of people who never spent a day in a military uniform.
Almost any adult resident of Canada can be a member of the Royal Canadian Legion. Anyone who is the child, stepchild, adopted child, grandchild, sibling, niece/nephew, widower, parent or spouse of someone who had served in the military, Coast Guard, RCMP or municipal police forces of Canada can become a Legion member themselves. Even those without relatives who had served in the military, police or Coast Guard can still apply to be affiliate voting members of the Legion. People who are not citizens of Canada can apply to be affiliate non-voting members of the Canadian Legion.
Non-veteran members can still wear the Legion 'uniform' and are entitled to receive special merit and service medals produced solely by the Legion — medals which often can be mistaken by those outside the military for authentic military medals.
Today, younger veterans in need of help increasingly are turning towards a growing number of non-Legion charitable and advocacy groups popping up across the country, formed solely for the assistance of veterans.
As for the Legion, it's doomed to irrelevance unless it radically rededicates itself as a modern veteran advocacy group. To survive, it must single-mindedly reach out to younger veterans, and commit its capital, financial and personnel resources to helping them and their families. More importantly, the Legion needs to aggressively challenge the current government's abandonment of modern veterans.
Only then could the Legion reach its centennial in 2026 with the same status, purpose and respectability among veterans that it enjoyed at its founding.
Robert Smol is a freelance journalist, a teacher and retired Canadian Armed Forces intelligence officer. He lives in Toronto.
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