Membership Still A Challenge On The Island
Rolling west along Highway 2 well beyond Charlottetown, you follow a twisty highway past postcard villages framed by narrow rivers, green fields and swaths of rich, red farmland. “This is good potato country,” says Jim Ross, first vice-president of Prince Edward Island Command. “It’s a busy time for the farmers.”
It’s a busy time for Legionnaires as well. Ross is heading to Summerside for Prince Edward Island Command’s 60th convention hosted by George Pearkes VC Branch. While scanning the road ahead of his pickup truck, Ross talks about his time in the Legion, the friends he’s made and some of the work that’s been accomplished. He then mentions one of the biggest challenges facing the Legion: Membership.
“The Island is a beautiful place to live,” says Ross who spent many years in the navy. “Sure, the winters can be harsh, but I for one wouldn’t trade it for any other place. I’ve enjoyed my time in the Legion and I like what it does for communities, but like everywhere else we are seeing a decline in membership.”
The trick, adds Ross, is to somehow convince people, especially those who are serving or have recently served in the military, to join and lend a hand. But that is a very tough job in Canada’s smallest province where there is no longer a military base. Ross believes one way would be to focus on retiring military personnel who have decided to move back home or settle on the Island for the first time.
The 54 accredited delegates at the May 29-31 convention seemed quite aware of the challenges as they listened to provincial Membership Chairman Gilles Painchaud announce that the overall number had slipped from 2,569 in 2007 to 2,426 in 2008. “Membership recruitment and retention cannot be handled by committees alone. It is every member’s business. Membership begins at the grassroots level—the branch. It is you who can make a difference, make both the old and new members feel welcome and encourage them to invite family, friends and colleagues to join….”
Dominion Chairman Tom Irvine brought greetings from Dominion Command, and during his address spoke about the Legion’s veterans unity initiative aimed at creating a larger organization with a stronger voice. “Our veterans’ community today is more fragmented than when the Great War Veterans Association first held the Unity Conference in 1925 that led to the very formation of the Legion. Today, we again have numerous groups that are trying to recruit members from the same pool of serving military people and who look at the same issues as we do. To combat this phenomenon…we have initiated a dialogue to institute a federation of veterans under one banner—that of the Legion.”
Irvine said none of the groups has made a commitment yet, but they all agreed to meet on an annual basis to discuss common issues. He noted that during the Second World War the Legion had a million people in uniform to draw from for membership. “Today that is not the case. We have about 85,000 people in uniform, and their attitudes towards their families have changed as well. We also do not bury them where they fall, we bring them home to great sorrow and, I might add, incredible tributes…but are we, as an organization, still relevant to them? I believe we are.”
Irvine said the Legion is spending over $200,000 a year to ensure those in uniform know the Legion still cares. Included in this amount is $150,000 used to supply the troops in Afghanistan with a coffee and doughnut through the RCL Troop Morale Fund and $33,000 for military sports programs. In addition, $20,000 is being given to the navy over three years to help celebrate its Centennial in 2010.
Irvine noted, too, that everything the Legion sends to the military is branded with the Legion logo or badge, and every year a senior elected officer of the Legion visits soldiers in Afghanistan. “They know we are there for them, but we also have to be seen—to be there for their families as well. We are in a new age, comrades, and when someone from the military asks what have you done for me lately, he or she is also asking what we have done for their family recently? If we are to get these people to join the Legion, we have to be able to answer that question. And we can.” One message Legionnaires can deliver to families is that the Poppy Fund can be used to help military dependants in need.
In his report to convention, Prince Edward Island Command President Alan Curtis stated it has been a “distinct honour” to represent Island Legionnaires and work with the executive. The highlight was attending the 42nd dominion convention in Ottawa last year where delegates voted for major change in Legion governance and structure. Those changes, he said, have resulted in considerable cost savings and “a more democratic and open governing body.”
Switching to the subject of youth and remembrance, Curtis said the command’s yearly partnership with Veterans Affairs Canada in setting up a display booth at the P.E.I. Teachers’ Convention is very successful at promoting remembrance to educators. “The large numbers of entries in the Legion literary and poster contests indicates that our youth are aware of the remembrance message.” One school in the province—Queen Charlotte Intermediate in Charlottetown—helped produce two national winners in the 2008-09 literary and poster contest.
Curtis also reported that he and Vice-President Dianne Kennedy have met with the province’s finance minister to express concern over the future of video lottery terminals in Legion branches and the need for property tax concessions. He said the Legion was assured branches would retain the VLTs they had—to a maximum of five per branch.
He noted that command is in excellent financial shape, due mainly to the successful sales of its War Service Recognition booklets produced by Fenety Marketing. “I urge all branches to submit veterans’ profiles to command so we can continue this project. We also appreciate the donations to command made by Boston Pizza….”
Veterans, Service, Seniors Committee Chairman Keir Johnson reported a busy two-year term on the seniors and veterans fronts. Command Service Officer Robert Adams, who has been on the job for 19 years, said the number of contacts with veterans and widows in 2007 and 2008 were 516 and 519, respectively, while the number of pension claims started—for each of those two years—was 128. “I started keeping statistics on pension awards in 1996. Since that time, 919 veterans and widows have received monthly pensions totalling $217,977 with back pensions and lump sum payments totalling $4,438,610.” He noted that since last convention the Veterans Independence Program has been expanded to include widows who are in receipt of the Guaranteed Income Supplement, the Disability Tax Credit, War Veterans Allowance and a disability pension under the Pension Act.
Delegates approved five resolutions, including one directing provincial command to establish a committee to study the organizational structure of command and then report back to convention.
Delegates also approved a resolution directing provincial command to reinstate the transfer of $2 of the P.E.I. Command portion of the per capita to the Veterans Memorial Charity Fund.
In elections, Jim Ross of Charlottetown Branch was acclaimed command president. Dianne Kennedy of Borden-Carleton Branch and Gilles Painchaud of Wellington Branch vied for First Vice and Kennedy was elected. The three new vice-presidents are Painchaud, Eldon Doucette of Miscouche Branch and Barb A. Gallant of George Pearkes VC Branch. Past Provincial President Jack MacEachern takes over from Doucette as command finance chairman while Keir Johnson was returned as command chairman. Art Hiscock of George Pearkes VC Branch outdistanced Pat Doyle of Charlottetown and Robert Gallant of Miscouche Branch to become command vice-chairman.
The generosity of Island Legionnaires was demonstrated during business sessions when delegates passed the hat and raised $4,071 for the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League and $2,139 for the RCL Troop Morale Fund.
Among the guests at convention was Senator Mike Duffy. He told delegates it is great to see a mixture of young and older members in the Legion, noting there has been a revitalization of interest in Canada’s military by young people today. “I think the baby boomers—I don’t know, maybe they heard too much about it from their parents and they turned off and tuned out, but the young people today are very interested.”
After the first day of business, Legionnaires marched proudly to nearby Veterans Memorial Park for a poignant wreath-placing ceremony in front of the cenotaph. Irvine later took the salute as delegates marched smartly back toward the branch.
Friday’s President’s reception and Saturday evening’s convention banquet were well attended and certainly underscored the high level of comradeship that exists on the Island. The local arrangements committee chaired by Barb A. Gallant was credited for its good work, a job that ensured comfortable and enjoyable surroundings. The ladies auxiliary served up delicious lunches and a Bon Voyage Breakfast on Sunday.