Like the community itself, the Legion’s Barrhaven Branch has flourished in the past few years. From a new branch with the required 50 new members in 2005, the branch has more than doubled its space and increased its membership to 460 today.
“We’ve never had a membership campaign,” said the branch’s lay chaplain and first president Ray Desjardins. “It has just been neighbour talking to neighbour and we’ve grown.”
Barrhaven sits just outside Ottawa’s Greenbelt, a swath of mixed farm, recreational and conservation lands which keeps the city’s urban sprawl in check. It had been a rural part of the former city of Nepean before it and several other communities amalgamated with the city of Ottawa in 2001. It has grown quickly since the 1990s and had a population of 52,000 in the 2006 census.
Desjardins had been a member of Bells Corners Branch in Nepean when he and a few of his fellow members who lived in Barrhaven began to wonder why they were driving the distance to that branch when Barrhaven, obviously, had grown enough to support its own branch.
After a few speculative discussions, Desjardins invited three other people to his house for a first organizational meeting and formed a committee. The original four were Desjardins, Gordon Ley, Gus Este and Ernie Hughes who completed his second term as president in April.
“We formed a provisional committee,” said Desjardins. “The problem was, we were all Legion members. To form a new branch you need 50 members who have never belonged to the Legion before.”
Desjardins said he had been reading the book, Branching Out, which is a history of the Legion up to 1994. “We just took the ideas the old guys had in 1926 and applied them to today. We reached out to the community and we got the politicians involved.”
With the help of Barrhaven Councillor Jan Harder, the group had an organizational meeting in the nearby Walter Baker Sports Centre. With 50 new members signed up, the group received its charter as Ontario Command’s Branch 641 on April 22, 2005. They held their first election for an executive in October 2005 at the sports centre.
The branch continued to use space in the arena for its major events, such as its first Remembrance Day service in 2005, until they had enough capital to rent its own premises. To do that, members gave promissory notes for $50 to $5,000, raising enough money to rent 1,800 square feet in a local strip mall. That money was all paid back, but it wasn’t long before the original space proved too small.
The process was repeated and in May 2010, the branch moved into a 4,300-square-foot space that had been the location of a Shoppers Drug Mart in another mall.
A high number of ordinary members have been attracted to the branch with good representation between all three branches of the Canadian Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “We want this to be a place where people are comfortable bringing their family and children,” said Hughes.
“We don’t allow any swearing in the clubhouse,” said Desjardins. The branch has an old OC Transpo fare box that you have to make a donation into if you are caught accidentally swearing.
One of the ways the branch is attracting young people is that it allows headdress to be worn in the branch except at Legion functions. “We sponsor a ball team and they come here after the games. They might as well be in here spending their money than in a bar down the street, paying $2 more a drink,” said Hughes.
A hot meal is offered every Friday night with live music. Not having a large kitchen itself, the branch has the meal catered.
“We have a lot of young people on our executive who will make good presidents,” said Este, who was the second president of the branch.
Desjardins said that the branch has a 15-year plan that would see it purchase land and build its own clubhouse and have space for other service clubs such as the Lions or the Rotary. They would also use the property for affordable housing for veterans and seniors. “We see it as being like a row of townhouses. It will be separate from the branch so that what is going on in the branch won’t bother them. Yet it will be close enough that the seniors can use it for special occasions or just to drop in.”
To get there, the branch formed the Friends of 641 for members to pledge $1.37 a day for five years. That works out to about $500 a year. If 400 people make the pledge, they will raise $1 million in five years.
A major concern the branch is addressing is that when it was formed Barrhaven had nothing which commemorated veterans or the war dead. The branch has a portable cenotaph it uses for its ceremonies.
When the local Capital Memorial Gardens Cemetery decided to erect a memorial wall which lists veterans who have died, the branch volunteered to organize the dedication ceremony.
A more public project the branch is working on is the erection of a memorial fountain at the new Longfields transit stop. “The stop was chosen because of the visibility,” said Ley. It is estimated that 1,500 to 1,900 people will use the stop every day.
Still, the fountain will only be a first project. Beyond that, the branch is already in negotiations with the City of Ottawa to erect a cenotaph for the Barrhaven community in an appropriate place. Then the branch will have no need for its portable cenotaph.