Remembrance Day, originally called Armistice Day, was first observed in 1919, commemorating the armistice agreement that ended the First World War on Nov. 11, 1918. The agreement was notably signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
The day has since evolved into a time of remembrance for those who served or sacrificed life and limb in our nation’s defence during the Second World War, Korean War, War in Afghanistan, and other Canadian military interventions and conflicts. Each year on Nov. 11, young and old Canadians alike commemorate the day by donning a bright red poppy pin – an emblem of the First World War – or by attending a ceremony hosted by their local legion, along with pausing for a moment of silence at 11 a.m. in honour of Canada's fallen service members.
The day has always meant a lot to me as I have several family members who served in both World War I and World War II. Our local Airdrie Legion honoured my grandfather – who served as a navigator in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second Word War – by hosting a tribute ceremony and reception when he passed away in 2007.
I am grateful for the respect the legion showed my grandfather, and the contributions they continue to make to the veteran community in Airdrie. Unfortunately, sometimes their efforts go unnoticed or unappreciated by some.
That is the reason I chose to delve into the history of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 288 as part of this month’s A View to the Past history column.
The history of the Royal Canadian Legion
Following the First World War, numerous veterans' groups and regimental associations representing former service members were created. For some time, they were unsuccessful in uniting in their efforts, despite their shared goal to support those who served in a war that saw 67,000 killed and 173,000 wounded Canadian soldiers.
In 1925, an appeal for unity led to the formation of the Dominion Veterans Alliance, and the Legion as we know it was born, as the Canadian Legion of the British Empire Service League. It was incorporated by a special Act of Parliament and the charter was issued in July 1926.
Queen Elizabeth II gave her consent to use the prefix ‘Royal’ in December 1960, and the organization become known as the Royal Canadian Legion. The Act of Incorporation was later amended in 1961 to make the change official.
At its inception, the aim of the Legion was to provide a strong voice for veterans. With the coming of the Second World War, there were plenty of new demands on the Legion, including growing membership, and a need for greater support of veterans as well as those serving abroad.
Local branches sprouted up across the country, and to this day, they continue to work towards improving the lives of service members, including those who have served in the Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP, and their families.
A local Airdrie Legion is born
According to Bill Dunbar, current Airdrie Legion president, and Dennis Hawkins, a longtime legion member, the Airdrie Legion was established in the early 1980s by a man named C.J. Davey. He had the idea to start up a local branch to support Airdrie’s veterans and their families.
In September 1982, several organizational meetings were held to determine if an Airdrie-based legion was feasible. To get going, they would need to procure 50 brand new veterans to join the branch.
Hawkins added it took a few months to gather up enough members, but once they did, they hit the ground running and began scouting out a location for the Airdrie Legion.
“Since we were brand new, we had to try and get a location to hold our meetings besides having them at the Lions Club at the Tower Lane Mall or at the Town and Country Centre,” he explained.
Hawkins added the legion moved around quite a bit in the early years, first renting a room at the old racquetball court in east Airdrie, and then when the pipes burst, renting space at the Airdrie Curling Club during its off-season.
In 1984, the Airdrie Legion found a temporary home in the old RCMP building. From there, they saw the construction of their own building on 3rd Avenue in the summer of 1986. They held their first district convention at the new location in September of that year.
The Airdrie Legion called that building home until 2014, when they were again forced to migrate to a new location.
“We were going into debt, and it was very hard to get out of the debt,” Hawkins said. “We were in quite a bit of money in arrears... and with the downfall with the membership not supporting the branch, it was deemed necessary that we get out of there and into another place.”
Bob McGivern, who was president of the Airdrie Legion at the time, sold the branch facility, and the monies generated from the sale were used toward the development of a new building, to be constructed on a plot of land on 1st Avenue by local developer McKee Homes. The build was completed in 2016, and branch members and executives soon took possession of their new home.
Both Dunbar and Hawkins said the new building has been serving them well over the past five years.
“It’s a little bit under capacity at times, but the only bills we have to worry about are taxes, utilities, and wages for the employees that we have,” Dunbar said.
A changing demographic
The Airdrie Legion functions in part thanks to the membership fee charged to ordinary, associate, or affiliate members.
According to Dunbar, an ordinary member is one who has served in the armed forces or the RCMP. He said this can include the regular forces, reserve forces, and cadet officers, as well as the officers in charge of the force.
Associate members are children, or grandchildren of a veteran, and affiliate members are those who have no familial relationship to a service member.
Dunbar said each member pays the same dues and has the same rights within the organization.
“I would suggest in time wisdom should take us so that so that all members [are ordinary] members,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me to have the different membership categories.
“Today in the legion, I would say that 60 per cent of the members have never served.”
Dunbar added that during his lifetime, he has witnessed the membership qualifications for legions change over the years to accommodate a shifting demographic.
“I was in the [Royal Canadian] Air Force from 1956 to 1963 and during that time, you could not join the legion if you weren’t a veteran,” he said. “You had to be someone who had been discharged. They always welcomed us into the legion as a serving member, but you could not be a member.
“And that was because most members then were people from the Second World War and Korean War.”
According to Dunbar and Hawkins, it is the families of service members who have helped keep the Airdrie Legion alive all these years.
“A lot of our associate members, sons and daughters [of veterans], have picked up responsibilities within the branch and on the executive [team], and have assisted considerably in keeping the branch alive and active,” Dunbar said.
Supporting the veteran community
While the membership may have changed over the years, the duties of the legion remain the same – supporting veterans and their families, and encouraging remembrance of their service and sacrifice.
Hawkins added the key role of the legion is to encourage remembrance and assist veterans in a variety of ways, such as offering mental health support to service members struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“[Veterans] normally don’t say anything about it, so it is very difficult for them to approach us for help,” he said. “It is only through word of mouth we find out these people need assistance.”
Hawkins said the legion continues to offer tributes at funeral services for veterans and associate members who have passed away, as per the wishes of the family, but due to the size of the 1st Avenue facility, they are unable to lend out their auditorium for receptions as they once did.
Another key responsibility of the local legion is to ensure there is an act of remembrance on Nov. 11, according to Dunbar.
Dunbar added the nationwide poppy campaign is part of the Royal Canadian Legion’s efforts to encourage remembrance during the month of November, with funds raised used to support local veteran support initiatives.
Local Remembrance Day ceremonies are also hosted by the branch, including a ceremony at the Airdrie Cenotaph, located west of the Town and Country Centre.
Dunbar said continuing to commemorate Remembrance Day is about remembering and understanding the history of our country.
“Remembering our history and remembering the veterans and soldiers who fought for the Canadian flag is very important,” he said.@carmenrcundy