Looking over the wreaths placed on the National War Memorial in Ottawa for The Royal Canadian Legion’s 42nd dominion convention, Honorary Dominion Command Chaplain Rabbi Reuven Bulka made a plea to people to join the organization he called “an army for good.”
It was a phrase that would echo several times throughout the June 21-25 convention that brought 1,357 delegates to the Ottawa Congress Centre, situated a short distance from Parliament Hill. “It is fitting that you have chosen to hold your convention here,” said Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson during the opening ceremonies. “That you are meeting in the shadow of Parliament Hill, where decisions that shape the very nature of our country are made—where governments of the day have made the tough decisions to send our sons and daughters to war to serve on missions around the world.”
It would be under that shadow that the governing body of the Legion gathered to wrestle with its own governance and to set its priorities for the next two years.
Activities began under dark clouds that had produced rainfall overnight but had started to clear as more than 1,400 Legionnaires gathered beside the lawn on Parliament Hill to participate in a Sunday morning parade along Wellington Street and around Confederation Square and the National War Memorial.
Six bands, including the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa and the Canadian Forces Central Band, led the parade past the crowd. Taking the salute was Dominion President Jack Frost. Next to him was the Legion’s special guest from the Netherlands, His Highness Prince Floris of Orange-Nassau, van Vollenhoven, the Legion’s godson and an honorary officer of the Legion since he attended the Legion’s 2000 convention in Halifax.
Placing wreaths were Prince Floris, Thompson, Brigadier-General Terry Leversedge representing the Canadian Forces, Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Jim Watson, Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien, Ontario Command President George O’Dair and Frost.
Frost would later introduce the prince at the opening ceremonies that afternoon. “About 32 years ago, the Legion under president Bob McChesney was asked by Princess Margriet of the Netherlands to be the godfather of her son Floris. It was our honour to accept. We have a Pilgrimage of Remembrance where we focus on the cemeteries of the Netherlands which are so well kept. We are particularly struck by the children who take care of those graves. It is a reminder that the bonds of friendship between Canadians and the people of the Netherlands are deep.”
Prince Floris told delegates: “This is the first time I have been in Ottawa which is odd since this is where my mother was born. A building was temporarily declared Dutch territory, in case she was born a boy.”
The comment referred to the tradition of royal titles being passed on through male heirs. The royal title however did descend to his aunt, Margriet’s older sister Beatrix who is now queen of the Netherlands.
During convention the prince would visit many of Canada’s national institutions in Ottawa and play in a charity golf tournament. He was also initiated as an Honorary Dominion Vice-President of the Legion.
When business began the next day, Chairman Tom Irvine welcomed delegates and noted he expected there would be a lot of difference of opinion expressed throughout the convention, and that he would tolerate no disrespectful comments during the sessions.
Delegates had come to discuss the issue of governance, a subject that would dominate the first day of business and have consequences for the elections that followed. It was clear they had done their homework and were fully aware of the proposals being put forward about the change of the Dominion Executive Council and the number of vice-presidents to be elected. Debate centred not so much on the proposed changes as on the procedures that would lead to the vote. Each of the three proposals on the table was met with an amendment from Ontario Command.
With six command representatives on DEC, Ontario Command clearly had the most to lose with the resolution eliminating representation by population and giving each command one representative. While the command failed to stop that motion from going through, Ontario found like-minded delegates willing to accept amendments as to the number of vice-presidents and the number of meetings a slimmed-down DEC would hold in any particular year.
Right after the governance issues were settled, Frost, as chairman of the Convention Committee, presented another motion that would change the election procedure for vice-president positions. The motion stated that a simple majority vote system would be retained for the election of single officer positions, such as treasurer or first vice. A “first-past-the-post” system would be used for positions held by more than one officer, such as the dominion vice-president positions.
British Columbia/Yukon Command First Vice Dave Sinclair attempted to amend the resolution by removing the “Be it further resolved” section dealing with the election of dominion vice-presidents. However, such an amendment would have maintained the voting procedure used to elect vice-presidents in the past. Irvine did not accept the amendment since it was contrary to the intent of the original resolution.
The resolution passed, but as Past President Mary Ann Burdett conducted the elections that followed, it was obvious that some of the delegates had not fully understood it.
The first election was for dominion president. Frost started by nominating First Vice Wilf Edmond of Donkin, N.S., Branch for the position. Edmond would later nominate Frost for a second term, but Frost declined, leaving Edmond acclaimed as president.
All four vice-presidents ran for the position of first vice, Pat Varga of Saskatchewan Command, Cliff Tessier of Manitoba-Northwestern Ontario Command and John Alger and Erl Kish of Ontario Command. The confusion began after the first ballot for first vice when Burdett announced there was no winner with more than 50 per cent. Tessier’s name was dropped and she called for another ballot. Then the floor erupted. Many had thought that because of the earlier resolution the person with the most votes would be the one elected.
Despite some passionate arguments from the floor, Constitution and Laws Committee Chairman Jim Rycroft said the resolution clearly states that a simple majority is required, which under the General By-laws means one more than 50 per cent of the ballots cast. After a half hour the chairman ruled to end the discussion. Burdett then called for the second ballot.
Alger was dropped on the next ballot leaving it a two-person contest between Varga and Kish. Varga, who had been a vice-president since 2002, won the next ballot.
The three other candidates for first vice were then automatically nominated for vice-president. Also nominated were Paulette Cook from Quebec Command, Calvin Crane and Gerald Warford from Newfoundland and Labrador Command, Gord Moore from Ontario Command, Gerry Vowles from British Columbia/ Yukon Command, Roger Oakley of Manitoba–Northwestern Ontario Command and Tom Eagles from New Brunswick Command.
There was a possibility of Ontario Command filling all three vice-president positions but Alger thanked delegates for his time on Dominion Command and declined to seek re-election. Oakley also declined his nomination.
In the end, the three vice-president positions went to the three candidates with the most votes. Kish, a member of Limestone City Branch in Kingston, Ont., was re-elected and joined by first-time vice-presidents Cook of Philipsburg, Que., Branch and Moore of Elmira, Ont., Branch.
Dominion Treasurer Mike Cook of Cloverdale Branch in Surrey, B.C., was acclaimed for another term. Irvine of Hemmingford, Que., Branch faced a challenge for chairman from Steve Wessel of Centennial Branch in Dartmouth, N.S. Ontario Command Chairman Bill Chafe, who was acting as vice-chairman of convention, was also nominated, but declined. Delegates returned Irvine for another term.
Later in the convention, Frost delivered his report as chairman of the Veterans, Service and Seniors Committee, noting he appeared at parliamentary committees to support the declaration of National Peacekeepers’ Day and advocate for improvements in the New Veterans Charter. “The Legion made an appearance on March 19, 2007, at the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration to advocate on behalf of Canadian Forces members and war brides who are considered “lost Canadians.” Eventually by the end of 2007, the government had initiated remedial action in this respect,” Frost said.
“It was a very successful year for the Long-Term Care Surveyor Program which sees the Legion providing trained surveyors to visit and interview veterans in long-term care facilities at the request of Veterans Affairs Canada. Across the country, 2,587 veterans residing in 683 different facilities were visited and questionnaires offering individual comments on the quality of care were returned to the department. Analysis shows there is a very high level of overall satisfaction with the care and accommodation provided. Institutional food continues to be the largest dissatisfier,” he said.
Frost would present 59 resolutions from the Veterans, Service and Seniors Committee, all of which were carried. Among the issues given priority were that frail veterans be entitled to benefits under the Veterans Independence Program regardless of whether or not they have qualified for disability and that integrated health benefits, including the VIP, be extended to the spouse of a veteran for as long as he or she has a need.
In her report, Poppy and Remembrance Committee Chairman Pat Varga said the trial program of distributing poppy stickers during visits to local seniors residences was very successful. She said the committee will develop a plan for a national day of visitation and distribution of the stickers to individual veterans and seniors residences. She noted it will be co-ordinated among commands, and branches nationwide will be encouraged to conduct this one-day distribution on the first Sunday of the campaign period.
Varga presented a resolution calling on the government to amend the Criminal Code to protect war memorials, war graves and large military field pieces and artifacts of historic significance from being denigrated or vandalized. This passed quickly, without discussion.
A special treat during the proceedings was a presentation by Nova Scotia schoolteacher Donna Griffin detailing her experiences on the 2005 Dominion Command Youth Leaders Pilgrimage of Remembrance. Varga noted it was Griffin’s 60th presentation on the pilgrimage, but it remained an emotional experience for Griffin and the audience. Tears welled up in Griffin’s eyes as she showed slides and discussed her and her fellow pilgrims’ experiences as they made the two-week journey through the battlefields and cemeteries of Europe.
Membership Committee Chairman Erl Kish reported that membership in 2007 was 373,367 which was 96.08 per cent of the membership in 2006. He said the committee continued to provide tools, guidance and direction necessary to conduct their membership activities effectively and efficiently.
Kish brought forward two resolutions from the committee. One was aimed at creating a member-at-large category for those who supported the Legion, but did not want to belong to a particular branch at the time. The second was aimed at allowing lapsed members to add previous years’ membership to their years of service when they rejoined. Both were soundly defeated.
Sports Committee Chairman John Alger reported on a survey of members about member-participation sports in the Legion. “The survey results drew attention to the fact that a small number of members were participating in Legion curling across the country (approximately 2,700 for both regular and seniors) yet there were two national curling championships. One concern was that the approximately $55,000 costs for each event was not a proportionally fair expense.”
Alger said all provincial commands were solicited for feedback and a majority favoured the amalgamation of the two curling events into one. This was done in time for this year’s competitions.
Veterans Unity Committee Chairman Charles Belzile reported on the positive discussions the Legion had last fall with representatives of 14 different veterans groups on ways they might come together under the Legion’s banner. Delegates heartily supported a motion that Dominion Command continue discussions with other veterans groups with the aim of developing a joint proposal with those organizations that all such veterans organizations join together in a federation or similar amalgamation under the banner name and membership of The Royal Canadian Legion.
On the subject of Legion ritual and awards, delegates agreed to two points which had been supported by the Veterans Unity Committee. Those were to allow current and former members of the Canadian Forces or Allied forces to wear their unit or regimental service blazer badge on the lower right side pocket of their Legion blazer. The other amends the dress regulations to allow current or former members of the Canadian Forces to parade in Legion dress wearing the headdress that they have earned.
Dipping of the flag also caused considerable debate. Delegates agreed to a resolution that would see the national flag remain upright during the playing of the national and royal anthems. However, after a lengthy debate Quebec Command withdrew a concurred resolution that would stop the practice of dipping the flag at any point during a service of remembrance.
Treasurer Mike Cook brought music to delegates’ ears by presenting a positive financial report. “The budgets for the next three years are nil or break-even budgets. The forecasted operating surpluses for these periods will be allocated to the Per Capita Reserve in the amounts of $766,450, $457,350 and $66,450, respectively. With continued tight management of budgets, we will reach our goal of no per capita increase until at least 2012,” he said.
Whether it was Cook’s report or not, delegates proved especially generous to the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League. Dominion Secretary Duane Daly made a brief, but powerful presentation on The Royal Canadian Legion’s work helping war veterans and their widows in the Caribbean. “The need is still very much there and it will continue until the last veteran is gone,” he said.
Delegates lined up at the microphones to announce their donations to the RCEL. Once tallied, Daly announced that donations and pledges totalled a record of $312,940. The amount was so high a note was read later in the convention saying the RCEL’s chairman, Prince Philip, had been informed and expressed his delight.
Support for the RCL Troop Morale Fund was also strong. The fund provides gift certificates for a coffee and doughnut to the men and women serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan. A total of $32,818 was gathered from the convention floor.
Certainly a highlight of the convention was the appearance by General Rick Hillier, the chief of defence staff, just days before his retirement. Hillier entered the hall to a standing salute from delegates. He began with a surprise presentation of the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service to The Royal Canadian Legion. The medallion is given by the CDS on behalf of the Canadian Forces “for outstanding service performed by persons other than active military personnel.”
Hillier presented the medallion to Frost and then addressed delegates saying, “I speak for 85,000 people in uniform who have said you are incredible people.”
He praised the Legion for its work with veterans and with its public support of the troops and their mission. He noted the Legion is often there to greet the troops as they return from the mission and support them with programs while they are deployed. “There are 1,200 men and women in Kandahar where it is often 50 C and we are seeing steady gains. They are at it every day because they believe they are doing something that is seen as valuable. That is courage—to carry on and do the same job—day after day. They could not do it without your support.”
The retiring CDS’s recognition of the Legion certainly spoke to the belief expressed earlier by Rabbi Bulka during those poignant moments in front of the National War Memorial, that the Legion is “an army for good.”
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