Tightening The Belt
The need to increase membership and curb spending are key components of a six-point action plan announced by newly elected Dominion President Tom Eagles at The Royal Canadian Legion’s 45th Dominion Convention in Edmonton, June 14-18.
At the end of what had been a raucous convention during which delegates rejected a proposed change to membership categories and a $5 increase in the per-capita tax, Eagles used his acceptance speech to focus on what has to be done to keep the organization healthy while fighting a serious drop in membership. “Our work must be seen as a celebration of the sacrifices our military men and women have endured willingly and our successes a tribute to the foresight of those who returned from conflict determined to make Canada and the world a better place in which to live,” he said.
In brief, the key parts of his six-point action plan are:
1. Develop a membership package aimed at recruitment and membership retention.
2. Get every Legionnaire involved in the positive work of the Legion because the more people that are involved, the more the Legion retains new members.
3. Encourage branch presidents and members to extend personal invitations to Legion activities in order to attract more members of the community into the organization.
4. Increase efforts to ingrain branches in their communities and make them “centres of hospitality.” This would include sending Legion information letters, with a membership form enclosed, to those who are hosting events, such as a wedding reception, in a Legion branch.
5. Address poor branch operations by encouraging those branches to seek support and advice and rely on sound business practices. Also, ensure elected officers at all levels fulfil the duties and responsibilities they are entrusted with.
6. Reduce spending at Dominion Command by revising committee structure and relying more on teleconferences instead of meetings at Legion House; conduct reviews of Dominion Command programs and Legion House operations with a view of identifying potential financial savings.
On the latter point, Eagles told delegates that the work will begin immediately after convention and that reports from both reviews will be submitted no later than January 2015. “This Deficit Reduction Action Plan will ensure that these programs are cost effective, national in scope and promote the broader interests of the Legion. Comrades, since 1986 our membership numbers have decreased, yet the number of programs we subsidized in that same time period has increased. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that this is not financially sustainable.”
The plan’s unveiling was an upbeat end to an exhausting convention which drew 966 accredited delegates—carrying 2,400 proxies—to the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton.
Tradition was at the forefront Sunday afternoon when the parade, which attracted approximately 1,000 participants, marched to city hall, where a large cenotaph commemorates Edmonton’s wartime sacrifices.
The Legion’s National Silver Cross Mother Niki Psiharis, whose son Sergeant Chris Karigiannis was killed by enemy action in Kandahar in 2007, placed a wreath as did Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, Dominion President Gordon Moore, Alberta-Northwest Territories Command President Wayne Donner and other dignitaries representing Alberta and Edmonton.
Moore and Psiharis then took the salute as the parade headed toward the convention centre. Opening ceremonies followed shortly with Legion Grand President Larry Murray officially declaring the convention open.
The Friday before the convention opened, Moore was at the Edmonton Garrison to announce that The Royal Canadian Legion was forming a partnership with Ride For Dad to launch a national public awareness campaign in the fight against prostate cancer. About 15 members of the Legion Riders, most of whom are also members of the Canadian Army Veterans motorcyclists, attended the ceremony. “Many Legion members are also motorcycle enthusiasts. We feel this partnership is very fitting,” said Moore who was joined by Colin Wackett, an executive member of the Ride For Dad. The venue was the starting point for Edmonton’s annual ride, which began the next day.
Convention business began Monday morning with the dominion president’s address. “In 1926, the Legion was founded by veterans for veterans,” said Moore. He recalled how the Legion recently started a letter-writing campaign to bring attention to inadequacies in Veterans Affairs Canada’s funeral and burial regulations. “Within three weeks of the campaign the Prime Minister’s Office called and said they would meet with us anytime, anywhere. For the first time in history the Legion was mentioned in the federal budget in 2013 and again in 2014.”
Moore said the Legion would support the 14 recommendations that are included in the House of Commons Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs’ report released in June. The minister has 120 days to respond to the report. “The minister told me yesterday, that he would be making some of those recommendations way before the 120 days are up.”
When Fantino addressed delegates on Monday morning he announced a one-year, $240,000 extension of the Outreach and Visitation Initiative which has Legion members visiting veterans in long-term care facilities where VAC provides financial assistance for long-term care. The extension will allow the Legion volunteer network to increase its annual visits to veterans from approximately 4,000 to 8,000.
The minister also promised that VAC will make more progress in eliminating departmental red tape. “We need to remove these impediments that are slowing things down. We want to make things easier for veterans,” he noted, citing the recent introduction of advance payments for housekeeping and grounds maintenance under the Veterans Independence Program (VIP) as an example.
Fantino ended his address by presenting Moore with the Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation.
In delivering the Dominion Command Veterans, Service and Seniors Committee Report, Moore said the Legion was supporting the use of trained service dogs for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Poppy and Remembrance Committee Chairman Dave Flannigan reported that the Dominion Command contract with the incumbent supplier of poppy materials expired in 2013. Although the incumbent supplier delivered the materials for 2013, they were weeks behind schedule causing several problems. As a result, the Legion called on bidders for the contract and the Trico Group (TTG) was selected and given a five-year contract. Testing demonstrated the company had a machine that had the capacity to form and die cut 45,000 poppies per hour. Arrangements had been made with Correctional Services Canada and several community groups to assemble the poppies.
Membership Chairman Peter Piper had a rough reception from delegates who challenged the move to allow people to join the Legion online. Those who join online automatically become members of Dominion Ottawa Branch, but are encouraged to join the branch nearest to their residence as soon as possible.
Delegates wanted assurances that the new members would be assigned to the local branches where the per capita can support the branch and provincial command. Several suggestions about how Dominion Command can better inform branches about new members in their area were suggested by the floor.
Concerns over sponsorship of new members were also raised. One delegate asked how they would know the new members weren’t people of poor character if they joined online. Delegates were assured that the branch still retained the authority to accept or reject any person applying to become a branch member.
Despite the opposition, delegates would approve a resolution authorizing the Legion to accept applications for membership, renewal or reinstatement by electronic means.
However, there was no acceptance of a resolution that would have amalgamated the four membership categories into two—one recognizing veterans members and the other recognizing all other members. The categories would be veteran and member, respectively. The resolution was soundly defeated.
Although there were several speakers against it, a resolution also passed allowing a lapsed member to buy back the current year and any other years of unpaid dues. Authority was granted to Dominion Command to develop a simplified single form that would address all the necessary information for membership.
Delegates also passed nearly 40 concurred resolutions from the Veterans, Service and Seniors Committee, including one calling on VAC to create a wallet-sized veteran’s identification card for veterans and veterans’ families. Another, passed at several previous conventions, recommends that VIP benefits be granted to all frail veterans, irrespective of having established a disability entitlement or low-income status.
Dominion Treasurer Michael Cook gave his report which painted a bleak forecast of the Legion’s finances. He reported that Dominion Command had built up a reserve fund to use before having to ask delegates for a per-capita tax increase. “This reserve peaked at the end of 2011 at $4,115,869 and since then we have had to draw down $956,899 of this reserve to fund the operating deficits in 2012 and 2013,” explained Cook. “Comrades, since we last met, the number of members has fallen by 24,750. With the continuing reduction in the number of members, it is expected that this reserve will be fully depleted by the end of the first quarter in 2016.”
Knowing that an increase in per capita would be proposed later in convention by the Ways and Means Committee, delegates then subjected Cook to a two-hour grilling over details in the budget. “I’m embarrassed to present such a budget,” an exasperated Cook said during the onslaught.
Delegates passed his treasurer’s report, but were ready for the Ways and Means Committee Report presented by Moore as chairman. “Eight years ago, at the 2006 convention in Calgary, we came to you for an increase in Dominion Command’s portion of the per-capita rate. A commitment was made that we would not come back before 2010 and, with proper management of resources it would be possible to make it to 2012. We have managed to make it to 2014,” said Moore.
Moore told delegates that the Legion was spending money to attract new members. “An Environics survey of Canadians’ feelings about the Legion discovered that there was a favourable view of us, with 10 per cent—3.3 million people—expressing an interest in joining the Legion.”
Using slides to show the Legion’s financial situation, Moore said money was spent on programs and campaigns, including the redesign and rebranding of the Legion name, the One-by-One membership campaign, membership retention and expansion efforts, including a mail-out to 60,000 people and advertising inserts in community newspapers. “In short, everything leads to increasing our membership,” said Moore.
The presentation ended with a recommendation that the Dominion Command portion of the per-capita tax be increased by $5 to offset the costs of declining membership and to give additional time to build up membership.
But delegates had already expressed their opposing views during the treasurer’s report. With hardly any debate, Dominion Chairman Tom Irvine called for the question and the recommendation was defeated.
Eighteen non-concurred resolutions were brought back to the floor on the final day. One that was passed changes the profit-sharing arrangement with the Dominion Command Supply Department from five per cent of profits after operating expenses are applied to five per cent of the gross margin.
Two other approved non-concurred resolutions eliminated travel expenses for spouses or other family members when Legion officers travel and while on inspections for the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL).
Several guest speakers addressed delegates throughout the convention. Among them was Brian Watkins, the Legion’s representative to the RCEL. Later during convention, $121,411 was raised in cheques, pledges and cash to continue the Legion’s work for the RCEL helping veterans in financial need in the Caribbean.
Author Joseph Boyden was announced as the winner of the Legion’s Founders Award. The award, presented for the first time in 2012, goes to an individual or an organization for extraordinary achievement in an area that exemplifies and advances the spirit and vision of the Legion’s founders. Boyden was recognized for his 2005 novel Three Day Road which tells the story of two Cree snipers serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War as they grapple with trauma and substance abuse. Boyden was on a book tour in France and was unable to attend.
In elections, Dominion First Vice Tom Eagles of Plaster Rock, N.B., was acclaimed dominion president.
All three vice-presidents, Dave Flannigan of Labrador City Branch, Ed Pigeau of Thessalon, Ont., Branch and Peter Piper of Tecumseh Stoughton Branch in Stoughton, Sask., ran for the position of first vice with Flannigan winning on the first ballot.
Pigeau and Piper automatically dropped down to run for vice-president, facing challenges from Tom Irvine of Hemmingford, Que., Branch, André Paquette of Harry Searle Branch in Chapleau, Ont., Paul Poirier of Herman Good VC Branch in Bathurst, N.B., and Darrel Jones of Three Sisters Branch in Canmore, Alta.
Elections Chairman Pat Varga told delegates that the candidates with the highest three votes would be elected. The result saw Irvine, Paquette and Pigeau elected.
Michael Cook had told delegates during his report that he would likely decline his nomination for dominion treasurer and did so, thanking delegates for 14 years of support. He received a standing ovation for his past service. Mark Barham of North Calgary Branch was then elected dominion treasurer in a race with Clayton Saunders of Petitcodiac, N.B., Branch.
With Irvine elected as a vice-president, the chairmanship was open. Nominated were former dominion president Jack Frost of Ontario Command and Wayne Freestone and Dave Horrocks both of Alberta-Northwest Territories Command. Horrocks was dropped after the first ballot and Frost won on the second.
As the convention drew to a close, Eagles summed up his acceptance speech by saying, “The past, present and future of The Royal Canadian Legion is based on the belief that we can have a positive long-lasting impact on the lives of the people that surround us at home, in our neighbourhoods and in the Legion. That is our obligation. It is a task we should gladly embrace from all those who are counting on the Legion to fight the good fight.”