Focusing on homeless veterans and service dogs – 51st Ontario Convention

September 9, 2019 by Eric Harris

North America’s most powerful waterfall provided a misty backdrop to the 51st Ontario Command Convention in Niagara Falls, Ont., May 4-7, as 519 accredited delegates holding 748 proxy votes gathered to elect new officers, debate resolutions and hear updates on provincial programs. Homeless veterans and service dogs garnered the most discussion.

Proceedings started on Sunday with a remembrance ceremony at the war memorial on Clifton Hill Street. Master of ceremonies and Local Arrangements Committee chair Diane Condon of Zone B-5 recited the Act of Remembrance. Among those placing wreaths were 2017 Memorial (Silver) Cross Mother Diana Abel, past dominion president Jack Frost, Honourary Treasurer Ed Pigeau, former dominion president Patricia Varga, Netherlands army veteran Caspar Koevoets, Veterans Affairs Canada southwestern Ontario case manager Karen McCafferty, Ontario Vice-President Wes Kutasienski, Dominion First Vice Bruce Julian, Dominion Vice-President Brian Weaver, Ontario Command President Sharon McKeown and Ontario Command First Vice Garry Pond.

Delegates then marched to the Crowne Plaza Niagara Falls, site of the three-day convention, for the opening ceremonies. Following Chairman Ron Goebel’s welcome to delegates, Julian declared the convention open and the delegates got started on the business agenda.

Incoming Ontario Command President Garry Pond speaks to delegates.
Eric Harris

Outgoing president McKeown reported on several highlights from her two-year tenure, including the resurrection of the Leadership Development Committee, work of the Homeless Veterans Program, a new initiative to encourage seniors’ membership, an update of the Ontario Command Officers’ Manual, and cost reductions to the Ontario Sports Program.

“The lifeblood of the Legion is membership,” said McKeown. “Each of us must do our part to recruit new members and retain existing ones. It’s up to each of us to make them welcome, to keep them informed, to encourage participation.”

In the Constitution and Laws Committee report, chairman Bruce McKittrick presented 10 bylaw amendments related to Article III complaints, the use of electronic funds transfers by branches to pay accounts payable, and the presentation of bylaws manuals to new members.

Pigeau presented the Honourary Treasurer’s report as well as the Ways and Means Committee report. He briefed delegates on some of the challenges faced by the new Branch Support Program, launched in 2017: lower than expected investment returns meant “we were unable to provide the support we had hoped for,” he said. “We will push the program forward and continue to hope for better market conditions.”

Pigeau also cited travel and per-diem cost-cutting efforts by district commanders, resulting in expense reductions of $17,536 in 2016-17 and a further $20,093 in 2017-18. Overall, the provincial command’s financial statement showed an excess of $147,295 in income over expenses. The Ways and Means Committee recommended no per-capita increase over the next two years.

Dominion First Vice Bruce Julian thanks outgoing provincial president Sharon McKeown.
Eric Harris

Membership committee chair Pond reported that membership in Ontario fell from 101,390 in 2017 to 98,380 in 2018, the first time it has been below 100,000. “I’m challenging us to return to more than 100,000 members before this year ends,” he said. “We need to embrace the new membership portal and have it work for us to reach this goal.”

Elections took place through the course of the convention, beginning with Pond of Carleton Place Branch being acclaimed president. In two ballots, delegates elected Derek Moore of Capt. Fred Campbell VC Branch in Mount Forest as first vice, over Robert Buchanan of Wellington Branch and Wes Kutasienski of Acton Branch.

Buchanan and Kutasienski declined to be added to the seven nominees for three vice-president positions, which included Pam Davidson, Mike Giovanetti, Brian Harris, Lynn McClellan, Jack Porter, Don Ramsey and Shelley Sing. Elected were Davidson of Harry Wray Branch in Gravenhurst, Harris of Victory Branch in London and McClellan of Elora Branch.

Pigeau of Thessalon Branch and Terry Jacobs of Kanata Branch were nominated for the position of honourary treasurer, with Pigeau elected. However, he then surprised delegates by announcing he would not serve another term. Jacobs was then acclaimed. Acclaimed for another term were Ron Goebel of Carleton Place Branch as chairman and Ron Crown of Grand Bend Branch as vice-chairman.

Pipers march in the parade along Falls Avenue following the commemoration ceremony.
Eric Harris

Animal-assisted therapy took centre stage as Phil Ralph, national program director of Wounded Warriors Canada (WWC), reported that since the federal government has withdrawn from approving national standards for service dogs, his organization, in partnership with Ontario Command, launched the WWC PTSD Service Dog program in 2018. It sets criteria for the training and pairing of service dogs. Ralph then displayed the new design for service dog vests. He also introduced veteran Glenn Reid, who served in Cyprus with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. He spoke passionately of the importance of service dogs.

“This is an issue that is very dear to my heart,” said Reid. “I have seen four comrades from my regiment since Christmas kill themselves…. I think if they had a service dog, it might have changed their lives.”

Delegates then lined up to deliver or pledge $111,250 in donations to the program.

Dave Gordon, chairman of the Veterans Services, Legion Seniors, Homeless Veterans Committee, briefed delegates on changes at Veterans Affairs Canada, including the revolving door of the minister’s office, the reopening of nine offices closed by the previous government, and the changes to benefits under the Pension for Life program, which went into effect on April 1. Gordon also gave a detailed report on Operation Leave the Streets Behind, a program that has assisted 770 veterans in 147 Ontario communities. Again, delegates lined up with donations, this time totalling $98,700.

Bringing greetings from Dominion Command, First Vice Julian screened newly produced marketing videos and reminded convention of the key points in the Legion’s strategic plan: modernizing infrastructure, increasing awareness, fostering a welcoming culture, celebrating members and volunteers, and improving governance. He reported that 18,000 digital poppies were downloaded by the public in 2018, the program’s first year.

Julian also reported on changes to the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL), which supports veterans and their widows in 16 Caribbean countries. In future, the London, England-based RCEL headquarters will provide pensions to this group of veterans and their survivors through veterans’ organizations in nine of the 16 countries. This new source of funds is provided by Britain’s Department for Internal Development. The Legion will continue looking after veterans in the seven countries not on the list. Delegates donated more than $26,500 to the RCEL.

Following the installation of new officers, Pond spoke while his father watched from Newfoundland via a video app. “I’m pretty sure that Mom and Dad and all of my seven brothers and sisters would be pretty proud,” said Pond.

“We need to be better with leadership,” he continued. “We have to be diplomatic with volunteers. In today’s world, we need to be more flexible, innovative and welcoming to all of our veterans. Please embrace the changes that need to be embraced. We have lots of new veteran-support programs. My goal is that we are in support of every single veteran.”

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