Planning for change | 2017: The year in review

March 22, 2018 by Nujma Bond
The virtual poppy drop lights up Parliament Hill.
James Peltzer, courtesy of Dominion Command

From supporting the Invictus Games to advocating for research into a controversial drug prescribed to soldiers, 2017 at The Royal Canadian Legion Dominion Command was full of activity. As the country’s largest veterans’ support organization, the Legion promoted remembrance, provided programs to help veterans receive needed support, and performed good works in communities across Canada.

Change was the operative word for Dominion Command. The formal registration of The Legion National Foundation as a charitable organization was a 2017 milestone. It paved the way for a new mechanism to funnel generous donations into more initiatives to help our veterans. A public announcement is planned for this spring. Also in 2017, a newly formed Going Forward Committee was tasked with charting the future of the organization.

While planning for change, the Legion funded its various programs with no reduction in service levels—a challenge it has continued to meet each year thanks to members, donors, volunteers and through tight fiscal control over operations and expenditures.

Within this landscape, the Legion remained at a crossroads in its evolution nationally, provincially and locally. While continuing to serve veterans of the past and present, maintaining the interest of members and inviting new ones was paramount. In 2017, new membership grew by seven per cent over 2016 and the decline in membership stabilized. Still, improving members’ experience remains a critical focus and was a central topic of discussion at provincial conventions across the country last year.

The membership website was modernized with a payment system allowing auto-renewal, creating an easier sign-up process for members. With a database of more than 275,000 members, implementing such a change was a huge undertaking, but three quarters of the 1,400 branches across the country have already started to use the system with success. A plastic membership card and a renewed welcoming ceremony for members were also introduced.

Promoting remembrance

The Royal Canadian Legion organizes and conducts the country’s national Remembrance Day ceremony at Ottawa’s National War Memorial. More than 35,000 people attended the 2017 commemoration on a chilly, sunny morning. Governor General Julie Payette, Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan, and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, on behalf of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, placed wreaths. The 2017-18 National Memorial (Silver) Cross Mother, Diana Abel, mother of the late Corporal Michael David Abel, placed a wreath on behalf of the mothers of Canada. She was chosen by the Legion from nominations submitted by Canadians. The Legion broadcast the ceremony via Facebook Live alongside national media.

For the second year in a row, the Legion held a nightly virtual poppy drop, projecting images of falling poppies on the Centre Block on Parliament Hill during the remembrance period. Thousands of people in person and online witnessed the mesmerizing scene, which was accompanied by a video that shared the names and photographs of many Canadian veterans. The first night’s scene aired on Facebook Live and people around the world joined in. Dominion Command also co-ordinated the presentation of the first poppy to the governor general at Rideau Hall on Oct. 24 at the ceremonial launch of the poppy campaign.

As part of the Legion’s yearly commitment to remembering Canadians on active duty, almost 5,000 care packages were sent overseas for Canada Day and as part of the Canadian Armed Forces’ Operation Santa Claus.

Means of remembrance

The Legion uses many and varied ways to involve Canadians. One of the most visible is
Legion.ca. Last year, a fresh version was launched to make it easier to navigate.

Public service ads on television and radio helped spread the message, and a new corporate video was produced to reflect the range of work done by the Legion. A marketing and communications strategy was built around showing and sharing, and a new five-year plan implemented last year will help inform even more Canadians about the Legion’s work.

The Legion also created new commemorative items in 2017, including a Vimy 1917 pin, a Canada 150 medal and a Veteran scroll. A sew-on Canadian Specialist Skill badge for Legion dress was also approved. These items are important reflections of the achievements of volunteers and members.

Remembrance also includes spending time in locations where Canadian soldiers have served. Last year, the Legion selected Kim Peters of Waterloo, Ont., to take part in the annual International Four Days Marches Nijmegen in the Netherlands in July. Her messages, photos and media interviews provided new insight into the world’s largest walking event. Also in July, 42 Legion members took part in the biennial Pilgrimage of Remembrance to visit significant sites where Canadian soldiers fought and died in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Those stories are being shared through writing and presentations at branches and other locations across Canada.

Helping veterans and their families

In 2017, Canadians purchased thousands of items from the online Poppy Store (poppystore.ca) and from branches across the country, helping honour, support and advocate for Canada’s veterans and their families. Forty-five thousand shipments of remembrance-related products were sent to customers across the country and the online store was revamped to offer a smoother and more user-friendly shopping experience (in French and English).

The most popular item in 2017 was the Canada 150 commemorative medal—more than 20,000 were purchased. Many of these went to thousands of volunteers for the national poppy campaign, which distributed close to 20 million poppies and generated millions of dollars to help veterans and communities.

Legion Lager was also soft-launched last year. The beer, brewed in Ontario and test-marketed at selected locations, will eventually be sold across Canada. Five per cent of the 2017 proceeds went toward Legion programming in support of veterans. Based on early responses, the lager is expected to become a substantial revenue source.

Making a difference

At the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto, ill and injured Canadian veterans joined international competitors in a variety of sporting events. The Legion made a significant financial commitment and shared updates from the event. Dominion Command also hosted a good-luck dinner in Kingston, Ont., for Team Canada athletes.

Navigating the government’s veterans benefits system can be challenging. Last year, the Legion’s service officers helped many people with applications and appeals, answering questions and tracking progress. “I just wanted you to know how much everyone appreciates the dedication you have to the work you do and the genuine caring you show everyone who you help,” wrote one veteran.

Legion volunteers, working with Veterans Affairs Canada’s Outreach and Visitation Initiative, made more than 10,000 visits to veterans in long-term care facilities last year.

Complementing the millions in funding provided at provincial and branch levels, Dominion Command alone provided almost 100 veterans and widows with nearly $75,000 in benevolent funding from the Dominion Command Poppy Trust Fund. The funding bought items such as hearing aids, dentures and structural renovations for chair lifts.

Research and advocacy

A Dominion Command cornerstone is advocacy on veterans issues of national importance. Last year, key actions included playing a continuing advisory role to the government on veterans’ disability benefits; a push for more research on the use of the anti-malarial drug mefloquine; and calling for research into cannabinoid-based therapy for veterans.

The Legion supports the creation of standards for the training of service dogs for veterans. In 2017, the Dominion Executive Council approved funding for a 2018-19 master’s degree scholarship in military and veterans health research. The $30,000 scholarship went to Queen’s University student Kelly Chen-McDonagh, who will investigate the benefits of psychiatric service dogs and companion dogs for Canadian Armed Forces members dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Legion also maintained a presence within the defence and security community by participating and providing input in the period prior to the release of the country’s new defence policy.

International support

Through the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL), the Legion supports veterans and their widows in 16 Caribbean countries and every second year, visits some of these locations. In 2017, Legion leadership spent time with veterans in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Barbados. Almost $500,000 was provided to 77 veterans and 110 widows living in Caribbean countries, with a goal of providing each with at least one hot meal a day for the year.

Poppies and other items for Remembrance Day events were also distributed in the above areas, and RCEL beneficiaries expressed gratitude toward all Canadians who made donations at branches and commands last year.

On behalf of several international trust funds and associations, the Legion also distributed more than $335,000 in funding to Allied veterans and widows living in North America, helping some 300 people.

Community support

Much of the Legion’s work supports communities through interactive programs and events—including young Canadians.

The 41st annual Legion National Youth Track and Field Championships last August drew 637 competitors and thousands of spectators. Held in Brandon, Man., its theme was the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

More than 300 Legion-sponsored athletes and more than 50 chaperones and coaches representing 10 provincial commands participated. More than 400 open category athletes and coaches rounded out the roster. Some 6,000 spectators, officials and volunteers—including many veterans—participated in the three-day event.

The Legion’s Local Arrangements Committee, CFB Shilo, and the city of Brandon ensured a successful event. Nine meet records and four national records were broken; in the past, athletes from this competition have gone on to become Olympians. Leading up to the competition, the Legion organizers ran instructional clinics, practice sessions and social activities for the athletes.

The Legion’s Member Sport Championships featured competition in cribbage, darts and eight-ball in 2017. Hosted by branches in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario, these tournaments attracted competitors from across the country.

The Legion’s national youth poster and literary contests attracted amazing talent in 2017, with winners and honourable mentions from coast to coast. For the first time, the Legion entered the winning remembrance-themed posters and poetry submissions in a British international competition called “Never Such Innocence.” Five Canadian entries took second or third place.

Looking forward

As in the past, the Legion’s mission in 2018 is to better serve veterans and provide a positive experience for anyone visiting a branch in Canada. New tools and ongoing training are planned this year: a command service-officer course, related professional development seminar and efforts to help members better understand Legion guidelines for welcoming visitors and commemoration.

Advocacy work is progressing in the important areas of homelessness, the VAC Pension for Life plan, and research into the effects of mefloquine. Members of provincial commands and committees are also invited to share defence-related issues of concern to help maintain a strong presence in that community. Members everywhere are encouraged to share their success stories with local media and Dominion Command’s communications department.

As Canadians prepare to observe the centenary of the end of the First World War, the Legion encourages its members to be engaged, fulfill the pledge to never forget, and invite new members to join.

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