Under a clear Prairie sky, with sunlight glinting off the Golden Boy statue atop the Manitoba Legislative Building, more than a thousand Legionnaires marched toward the cenotaph in the city recognized as the birthplace of the Canadian Legion. The men and women making up the sea of blue and grey were in Winnipeg for The Royal Canadian Legion’s 43rd dominion convention, June 12-16, and to celebrate the historic unity that has bettered the lives of veterans and their families.
Their presence also reaffirmed the Legion’s commitment to seek unity of action among veterans’ organizations, a promise that should ensure the well-being of veterans far into the future. “Since its formation the Legion has continued to fight for better benefits for veterans, the perpetuation of remembrance and the betterment of the communities in which we exist—and we have succeeded. But there is still work to be done,” Dominion President Wilf Edmond said at the unveiling of a plaque designating the founding of the Legion as a historic event. The plaque will be displayed at the Marlborough Hotel in Winnipeg, where veterans groups first united in November 1925.
The legacy of that event 85 years ago is woven into the very fabric of the nation. Those early veterans “assisted in creating a society more generous, more humane and more caring than anything they themselves may have known and experienced,” said historian Glenn Wright during the unveiling ceremony. “This is the historic legacy…this is why we honour the Legion today.”
That reverent, yet celebratory tone persisted throughout convention, beginning Sunday morning as delegates and guests participated in the cenotaph ceremony. Among those placing wreaths were Wim Geerts, Ambassador of the Netherlands, National Silver Cross Mother Della Morley, Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Canadian Forces Brigadier-General Kelly Woiden, Dominion President Wilf Edmond, Manitoba–Northwestern Ontario Command President Gordon Walker as well as provincial and municipal government representatives.
During the opening ceremony at the Winnipeg Convention Centre, Geerts said the Dutch people are particularly grateful to Canadians for delivering them from five years of occupation and for the sacrifices made by Canadian troops in April and May 1945. He acknowledged the Legion’s unflagging dedication to veterans’ welfare. For all the Legion has done and continues to do, he said, “thank you, thank you, thank you.” He then declared the 43rd dominion convention opened.
In the keynote address Monday, the minister of Veterans Affairs praised the Legion’s volunteerism and talked of the challenge in serving the differing needs of traditional and modern-day veterans. But “one thing is not different,” said Blackburn. “The commitment to serve veterans….”
The 1,071 accredited delegates applauded the minister when he announced veterans will continue to have first call on beds at Ste. Anne’s Hospital at Ste-Anne-de Bellevue, Que. He said that is a top priority during negotiations for transferring the last federally-run veterans’ hospital in Canada to provincial jurisdiction (the Province of Quebec). He said other important concerns are maintaining quality of service and personnel.
Although pleased with the minister’s statements, delegates endorsed a resolution from Quebec Command aimed at maintaining Ste. Anne’s as a federal government institution under VAC. Among other things, it calls on the federal government to ensure veterans have top priority and that the high standards of care offered by VAC remain.
The resolution was in step with a section of the Veterans, Service and Seniors Committee report that expressed the concern that any transfer agreement should, among other things, specify that all beds at the hospital be designated Priority Access Beds, and that quality of care should be maintained.
Blackburn said his department is also reviewing how well the New Veterans Charter is meeting veterans’ needs. Priorities include re-evaluating the lump sum payment to wounded or injured veterans in recognition of their pain and suffering; processing claims faster; improving client services, including hiring nurse practitioners where doctors are in short supply and adding case managers where warranted; increasing Canadians’ awareness of veterans’ contributions and needs; and developing private sector partnerships to promote hiring of veterans.
During business sessions, delegates heard expressions of solidarity from representatives of more than a dozen veterans and military organizations in Canada, the United States and Britain, including the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada, the Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping, the Air Force Association of Canada, the Last Post Fund, the RCMP Veterans’ Association, the Naval Officers Association of Canada, the NATO Veterans Organization of Canada and the Hong Kong Veterans Association of Canada.
Legion Grand President Charles Belzile, who has spearheaded Legion efforts to bring these organizations closer together, told delegates that unification such as that which happened in 1925 is not possible, “at least for now.” He said the Veterans Unity Committee has met many of its goals through improved communication with other veterans groups. “We have been able to achieve a consensus that by working together on important…issues, we will be able to advocate with a unified voice.”
In his report, the Dominion President said serving Canadian Forces (CF) members are noticing “that we care and can assist them,” thanks in part to service bureau assistance to CF members filing disability awards, and continued advocacy for changes to the New Veterans Charter to address service gaps. He said that positive image is furthered through such successful programs as the RCL Troop Morale Fund, Operation Santa Claus, the Canada Day gift program, programs in British Columbia/Yukon and Alberta–Northwest Territories commands that help CF members transition to civilian life, and efforts by Ontario Command and B.C./Yukon Command to identify and help homeless veterans. At the same time, the Legion still works to improve conditions for traditional veterans, such as a needs-based approach for benefits and national standards for long-term care.
Edmond asked Legionnaires to embrace public relations and spread the word about such successes. “By letting our communities know what we do for them, we can attract new members.”
The Dominion President reported that the new Dominion Command leadership structure is working very well and proof of that followed with a smooth convention election process. First Vice-President Pat Varga of Coleville, Sask., Branch was acclaimed Dominion President, after Edmond of Donkin, N.S., Branch declined the traditional nomination for another term.
Dominion vice-presidents Gordon Moore of Elmira, Ont., Branch, Erl Kish of Limestone City Branch in Kingston, Ont., and Paulette Cook of Philipsburg, Que., Branch vied for First Vice, but no winner emerged after the first ballot. Cook’s name was dropped, and Moore was elected on the second ballot.
The ‘first-past-the-post’ system approved by convention in 2008 for the vice-president positions also worked smoothly. Incumbents Cook and Kish were added to the list of those nominated, namely provincial past presidents George O’Dair, Ontario Command; Dave Flannigan, Newfoundland and Labrador; Roland Fisette, Manitoba–Northwestern Ontario; Gerry Vowles, British Columbia/Yukon; and Tom Eagles, New Brunswick. Kish declined, and after one round of voting, Eagles, Flannigan and O’Dair became the new faces elected as dominion Senior Officers.
Elections for the positions of Treasurer and Chairman also took one ballot. Incumbent Treasurer Michael Cook of Cloverdale Branch in Surrey, B.C., defeated Don Hubbs, honorary treasurer of Ontario Command; incumbent Chairman Tom Irvine of Hemmingford, Que., Branch was elected over Steve Wessel of Centennial Branch in Dartmouth, N.S.
The nine-year partnership between VAC and the Legion in support of Legion efforts to create housing for veterans and seniors—the Legion Housing Centre for Excellence—ends March 2011, reported Edmond, chairman of the Veterans, Service and Seniors Committee. The Legion does not have resources to maintain the service, he said, and it is unlikely VAC will provide a grant to support it. Edmond also reported that the centre’s national Housing Registry will initially be maintained by Dominion Command Service Bureau.
Edmond brought forward dozens of resolutions from the Veterans, Service and Seniors Committee, and all were carried.
Membership statistics, meanwhile, show there were 348,228 Legion members at the end of 2009, representing a loss of 11,974 from 2008. Membership Committee Chairman Paulette Cook said while losses have slowed, “we have still not been able to curtail them,” despite such successful efforts as offering retiring military personnel free one-year memberships (more than 130 have joined) and sending out 10,000 renewal notices to members in arrears, which was particularly fruitful among those who last paid in 2008, of whom just over 16 per cent responded.
Poppy and Remembrance Committee Chairman Gordon Moore reported legal action has been taken in four cases of poppy trademark infringement. A non-concurred resolution brought back to the floor seeking to ease restrictions on use of the poppy symbol was withdrawn after examples were given of unauthorized and inappropriate use.
Moore introduced Brenda Fredrickson, a former teacher from Elrose, Sask., who talked about her experiences on the Legion’s 2009 Youth Leaders’ Pilgrimage of Remembrance. In less than a year, Fredrickson gave 50 presentations on what she gained from the trip to First and Second World War sites in Northwest Europe.
The Dominion Treasurer brought welcome news that despite the economic slowdown budgets for the next three years are expected to be nil or breakeven. “Contributions to the Per Capita Reserve Fund of $250,869 and $53,575 are expected to be made into the reserve. A small drawdown of $169,585 may be needed in 2012,” explained Cook.
Track and field participation substantially increased after introduction of the open concept for youth and midget categories, which raised the meet’s profile to the official Canadian championships in the youth categories, reported Sports Committee Chairman Pat Varga.
Cribbage and darts remain strong member sports, but participation in curling has declined slightly. Fewer branches are willing to host national member sports competitions, a situation addressed in part through grants to assist with costs. Delegates later approved a resolution that will introduce a new annual national member sports competition: eight ball pool.
Dominion Secretary Brad White reported that Dominion Command Supply Department sales peaked in 2009 at $1.95 million, down 11 per cent from 2008, but introduction of a web store in 2011 is expected to boost sales. In 2009, $86,178 from supply sales was shared with provincial commands.
White also announced a new marketing plan will be developed and aimed at building membership. This sparked a wide-ranging discussion of ideas from the convention floor. Alan Campbell, the 24-year-old first vice from Stonewall, Man., Branch, suggested members “look inward first” for an infusion of younger members by getting their grandchildren involved.
Delegates dealt in businesslike fashion with 155 resolutions, including five late ones and 13 non-concurred. Among those carried were ones allowing, with restrictions, use of poppy trust funds for support of Canadian Military Family Resource Centre programs; development of policies by provincial commands and local branches to recognize years of continuous service for Ladies Auxiliary members transferring to branches; and doubling the cap on funding for cadet corps assisting the poppy campaign to 20 per cent of available funds in the poppy trust account.
Non-concurred motions returned to the floor and passed by delegates included resolutions extending bursaries to great-grandchildren of Canadian ex-service personnel; finding less costly means of providing the public with poppy campaign financial statements; allowing The Royal Canadian Legion Cadet Medal of Excellence to be worn on the Legion uniform. Once again, despite vigorous debate, a resolution seeking restoration of the old policy on dipping of the colours was defeated. The rationale is that the dipping of only the Legion banner is consistent with practices and policies of the Department of Canadian Heritage and the Canadian Forces. The national flag remains upright during playing of the national and royal anthems.
Convention ended with a rousing speech by incoming Dominion President Pat Varga whose first duty was installation of the new Grand President, retired Vice-Admiral Larry Murray of Stratford, Ont.
In her first speech as president, Varga promised proactive, positive and progressive leadership. “I will listen to your concerns and thoughts, but most especially to your ideas….
“We will modernize and ensure we are relevant” and increase public relevance and visibility. Her intent is to “evolutionize, not revolutionize” to meet challenges ahead while maintaining tradition. She invited members to “walk the path of service; service, not for self, but betterment of others….We serve because we care.”
In recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel, convention voted to change the venue of the 2016 convention to St. John’s, Nfld. The 2012 convention will be in Halifax, June 9-13.
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