Chomedey Branch in Laval, Que., has a simple formula for keeping membership stable: welcome the community inside to have some fun.
In a large and diverse community just north of Montreal, “this is the place where people can make new friends,” says President Christopher Wheatley. People come in to throw a few darts, play a little pool or a few hands of cribbage, get a taste of the regular Sunday night dinner and dance—and become members.
“I don’t know how many members we’ve gotten out of that dinner dance over the years,” he says. “The first time we had afternoon dart league, 20 people came and I think four became members. Once they come through the door, they think this is a nice place.”
Don Paradis, now service officer but, like many others in the branch, has held a number of executive positions, agrees. “We opened our doors completely, and we were able to save ourselves from declining membership.”
Like many branches, Chomedey Branch was started on a wave of enthusiasm, and was later threatened by a sag in membership. When the charter was granted in 1963, there were only 17 members and no permanent home, but within two years the branch was able to rent space. Soon membership outgrew the rented premises on Rue Principale, and in 1972 there was enough in the building fund to support the purchase of a two-storey building at 2000 Boulevard Curé Labelle.
But with the passage of another decade, finances were not so rosy, and a decision was made to sell and relocate. In 1986, the branch sold the building and rented space from the new owner, investing the proceeds of the sale while the membership decided what to do next. But “we never moved anywhere,” said Immediate Past President Howard Tyers.
Indecision proved to be a benefit. After the new owner went bankrupt, the branch bought back the building in 1992 at nearly the same price they had sold at, while benefiting from interest earned while their investment sat in a high-interest bearing account.
The branch leases out the lower floor, raising enough to cover property taxes. In 1999, members were able to pay off the mortgage. Now occupying the second storey, the branch has ample room for a spacious kitchen, offices and storage, a library, a 2,500-square-foot reception room and a roomy lounge area.
Helga Vezina, 81, has seen a lot of changes at the branch since she joined Chomedey Ladies Auxiliary in 1975, a year after her husband joined the branch following his retirement from the military. “I’ve seen many projects and many gatherings over the years,” she says. “The branch went through some pretty hard times at one time, but we’re doing OK now.” Seven members of the Vezina family are branch members, with daughters and grandchildren carrying on the family tradition.
Membership is also a family affair for sisters Claudette and Janet Adams, who joined the ladies auxiliary in the mid-1990s. Claudette was L.A. president in 2000. Like Vezina, they became branch members a decade later when L.A. membership dropped too low to sustain. “We had to give up doing banquets,” Claudette says. “We used to do bowling parties, birthday parties….”
Claudette still reigns in the kitchen, where, helped by a handful of enthusiastic volunteers often including Janet, who’s also branch first vice, she plans, shops for and cooks Sunday dinner for 60 to 80 people every week. Each week features a different menu and different musical entertainer. Popular regular entertainer Maddy Firlote encourages everyone to dance, and leads members and guests alike in the Continental, an easily mastered and addictive group dance.
“The kitchen staff here, they’re unbelievable,” Wheatley says, busily making coleslaw for a luncheon event while warding off constant interruptions from inquisitive members who’d like to learn his secret recipe.
There’s a happy buzz of activity in the kitchen when the volunteer crew assembles. “We enjoy it,” says Claudette Adams. “It’s a lot of fun—and it’s very important. We all volunteer, so all the money we raise goes to the branch.” Even bar duties are carried out by volunteers.
The branch has many ongoing projects, and supports local charities, youth groups, scouts and cadets and contributes to local hospitals. It has organized fundraisers for community charities, including the Missing Children’s Network, the Starlight Foundation and the Alzheimer Society. This year funds were raised to provide veterans with wheelchairs and a fundraiser in support of children with autism.
Member activities have changed over the years. In the 1980s there were bowling and baseball teams, and popular “Associate Dances,” so-called because they drew younger associate members who enjoyed loud rock music. Today’s lively membership sports program includes eight-ball, bridge, golf, darts and cribbage.
The branch has hosted the provincial darts championships and twice hosted the Dominion Command Cribbage Championships, first in 2002, when Wheatley was tournament director, and again in 2011. Brigitte Bourbonnière, who helped organize the event this year, has been running the branch cribbage league since 2008. A Canadian Forces supply technician who served from 1989 to 2005, including postings to Haiti and the Golan Heights, Bourbonnière built up the league to about 70 players by going out and recruiting them. “Of course, they don’t all come to every meeting,” she says, but there are enough that there is good competition every week.
But it is service to veterans and upholding the tradition of commemoration that really makes the branch tick. Each month more than half a dozen branch members visit about 400 veterans in Ste-Anne’s Hospital in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, west of Montreal. “We visit every room on every floor,” distributing treats like chocolate bars and potato chips, homemade cakes and toiletries, says Paradis. A highlight of the year is hosting a couple of dozen Ste-Anne’s veterans to a meal and entertainment. The branch receives many requests to provide colour parties for funerals.
The branch is very proud of the new cenotaph unveiled in 2010 at Laval City Hall. “We kind of upgraded the original cenotaph, put more detail on,” explained former president Les Stockwell.
The idea originated with Kevin Gillan, a Laval resident who relocated to St. Marys, Ont. He was impressed by stonework at his new branch and envisioned something similar in Laval. Thus began the interprovincial collaboration of two branches 700 kilometres apart. The new cenotaph was designed and constructed in Ontario from granite donated by the town, while Chomedey Branch undertook negotiations with city hall and co-ordinated relocation of the old cenotaph to the 4th Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment’s armoury, located in Laval.
The unveiling ceremony, which included a wreath-placing ceremony, was attended by local elected officials and senior representatives from The Royal Canadian Legion and the Royal 22nd Regt., followed by a buffet at the branch.
The branch also organizes the local ceremony each Nov. 11. “The Royal 22nd Regt. parades with us,” says Paradis. And afterwards, the branch welcomes them with open arms. “We can have as many as 150 to 200 join us” for a buffet meal, drinks and fun. And each year, a few return the favour, helping to buoy membership numbers.