Soldier’s Aid Commission still helping veterans

July 15, 2019 by Tom MacGregor

With more than 100 years of service, the little-known Ontario Soldiers’ Aid Commission (SAC) is still carrying on its mandate to financially assist veterans from the Second World War, Korean War and their dependants.

When the First World War began, there was no department to look after veterans or pensions to support those who were coming home ill or disabled. Disabled people were considered a family responsibility or one that the community would support through charities.

On a national level, the Canadian Patriotic Fund was formed by Montreal millionaire Herbert Ames as a charity for returning veterans. “Of course, back then people thought the war would be over by the end of 1914,” said SAC vice-chair John Stapleton.

By 1915, it was evident that the war was not going to end quickly and something more than a charity was needed to help those who were returning. In Ontario, the Soldiers’ Aid Commission was created by an order-in-council on Nov. 10, 1915. Its purpose was to provide limited financial assistance to returning soldiers and, in some cases, their dependants.

In his book Ontario’s Soldiers’ Aid Commission: 100 Years of Assistance to Veterans in Need 1915-2015, author James A. Onusko estimates that Ontario provided more than 230,000 of the 538,283 soldiers recruited in Canada. “This meant that a province with 31 per cent of the population had provided 43 per cent of the troops,” he wrote.

Originally, SAC was funded by bequests.

The commission’s first office was in the Parliament Buildings in Toronto but, as the war continued, new branches were opened. By mid-1916, there were 37 branches with new ones opening in Kingston, Brockville, Guelph, Alexandria and St. Catharines.

In 1919, a young widow named Kathleen Hammond died. Her husband had died when RMS Lusitania was torpedoed in May 1915. She left about $50,000 to the Ontario government, which passed it on to the SAC. The Hammond Fund became its largest source of income.

In the 1920s, the SAC also became responsible for distributing money from the Ontario Canteen Fund, which was money raised from military messes overseas.

When the war ended, the influx of returning soldiers was overwhelming. On top of the numbers, it was also the period of the Spanish flu to which young people in their 20s and 30s were especially vulnerable.

The returning veterans had a variety of complex problems, including unemployment, rehabilitation needs, mental-health issues and family problems.

The SAC also became involved in placing orphans and wards of the state in foster homes before the Children’s Aid Society was established.

Over the years, the mandate was expanded to include assistance to Second World War and Korean War veterans and their dependants. That has not changed since the 1950s. Modern-day veterans, including those who served in Afghanistan, are not covered in the group’s mandate.

The fund operates today with an annual grant from the Ontario government. “The bequest money was all gone by the 1960s,” said Stapleton.

Today the fund has one employee, plus up to seven volunteer commissioners. The maximum grant SAC can make to an individual is $2,000. The annual funds paid out are nearly $200,000.

“Our typical client would be an aging widow. We are most often dealing with people who want to stay in their homes. We help out with roof repairs or renovations to help with getting up and down stairs,” said Stapleton.

The commission works hand in hand with the Legion, often combining funds with a grant from the poppy fund or with Veterans Affairs Canada. “VAC used to
know where we were back when they were in Ontario, but then they moved to Prince Edward Island and they tend to forget about us. We are the only province that has an organization like ours.”

Whether or not SAC’s mandate will change is undecided. “There is always talk about expanding our mandate but no decision has been made,” said Stapleton.

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