On Saturday, June 12th, at just the right moment, the rain stopped on Smith Street. The dignitaries—most wearing blue blazers—filed out from under the awning, and then the sun was distantly there, sending a glow over Winnipeg’s Marlborough Hotel, birthplace of The Royal Canadian Legion.
Many took their place onstage, including Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Legion Dominion President Wilf Edmond, while a crowd filled the recently wet seats surrounding the podium.
It was 85 years ago—in the aftermath of the First World War—when Canada’s fledgling veterans’ organizations came together in November 1925, at Winnipeg’s most vaunted hotel. And in a moment of inspired unity, they agreed to create the Canadian Legion of the British Empire Service League. “The war had been fought for high ideals,” historian Glenn Wright told the crowd, “but when veterans returned home in 1919, they found a Canada torn by social strife, economic depression, and widespread unemployment; they faced an uncertain future.
“Representatives of almost 60 veterans’ organizations, regimental associations and clubs met here to establish the Legion, dedicated to ensuring that those who returned from the Great War would be able to re-establish themselves in society, that the needs of survivors at home would be met, that the sacrifices of those who served in that conflict would never be forgotten.”
While the Marlborough already had a plaque—dating back to 1950—commenting on the birth of the Legion, the centrepiece of this event was the unveiling of a Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque sanctioning the Legion’s founding as an event of national historical significance.
And it’s true because in 1925 there was a moment of national significance here. Before the Legion’s birth, veterans were seen differently; if anybody fought for the rights of old warriors, they did it haphazardly. But from the Great War’s carnage emerged an army of veterans who, having forged Canadian identity abroad, would work to build the nation at home. “Veterans came to the table with a host of issues: pensions for the disabled, re-education, land settlement, life insurance, medical treatment—some men were permanently disabled, amputees, the blind, those who had suffered shell shock,” said Wright.
They had returned home to fight again, “for recognition, for benefits, for remembrance, for their rights as members of Canadian society,” added Wright. “They may have won the war in Europe, but they came home to another kind of struggle.”
During the ceremony, accolades were heaped upon the Legion for its years of serving veterans, perpetuating remembrance and building communities. “Since its founding, The Royal Canadian Legion—Canada’s largest veterans-based organization—has provided a strong and united voice championing the needs of Canadian veterans,” said Blackburn. “The Legion has kept the flame of remembrance alive in honour of the sacrifices of those who served and died in the service of Canada. Today, the Legion continues to play an essential role not only in the lives of veterans, but in the lives of all Canadians.”
The hotel itself has a stirring history. Sir Winston Churchill once hung his hat at the Marlborough. And while the hotel, like the Legion, has gone through some tough times, it too has grown up. With the addition of new floors and a new wing, it has spread up and out—now boasting Winnipeg’s largest ballroom and the downtown’s first indoor waterslide. And while its future may not be without challenges, like the Legion itself, its past can only be seen as a sign of strength. “I feel a sense of history standing in front of you and the Marlborough Hotel today,” said Edmond. “It was also here that the Legion held its first dominion convention, in January 1927. Today we’re marking that foundation by holding our pre-dominion convention meeting of the Dominion Executive Council….
“The founding of the RCL brought together Canada’s veterans to fight for better benefits for those who served. And 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’s still work to be done.”
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