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Joining Up

by Benjamin Errett


It wouldn’t exactly be true to say I joined The Royal Canadian Legion last October in a burst of post-Sept. 11th patriotic fervour. I had been planning it long before then, largely for the access to cheap roast beef dinners and the cachet of being the youngest person in the smoke-filled hall.

I’ve never served in the Canadian Forces, nor have I ever really considered serving. I was able to become an associate member of the Legion because my grandfather was in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. New Legion rules introduced in 1998 allow any Canadian over 18 to become a non-voting affiliate member, provided they garner two references from members and are deemed of good character.

As a 22-year-old, I’m now among the 2.6 per cent of Legion members who are under the age of 29, a tiny sliver of the 460,000 Legion members across the country.

Matthew Smith, a 22-year-old University of Alberta student, joined earlier this year. Like me, it was because of his grandfather. “My grandpa has been a member for years, and I used to go with him in Brandon, Man., as a little kid. We’d play pool and stuff like that. I liked to hang out and associate with the older crowd. Just being around people who have experienced more in their lives than you’ll ever even dream of.”

When Smith told his friends he was joining the Legion he got the same kind of reaction I did: “There’s a lot of ‘eww,’ like you’re going to play bingo or something,” he says. “But then you kind of explain to them why you joined and the fact that you can go and have a beer and talk to people. They’re so friendly.”

I was joining Branch 95 in Smiths Falls, Ont. The ceremony, in which I swore an oath to the sovereign, was moving despite, or maybe because of, its unpolished edges. The national anthem was to begin the evening, but troubles with the audio equipment allowed only a brief, tinny rendition. “The audio’s a bit slow,” said branch President Roy Moffatt, an impeccably dressed man with a chest full of gleaming medals.

“Aren’t we all?” someone called out from the back of the room.

After the ceremony, I was approached by my comrades (as I am to address them) several times during the evening. Most often it was to ask if I would like to join the branch colour party. This troop of flag-bearers is largely composed of elderly ladies, and I was told they needed hardy marchers for the Santa Claus parade.

Legion branches now fulfil the same community boosterism role that the Lions and Rotary clubs do, but they also offer a social aspect that’s unique in many towns.

My cousin, a native of Portage la Prairie, Man., happened to be visiting during my swearing-in, and she decided she, too, wanted to join the Legion. The branch on Duke Avenue in Portage is a lively spot in the evening, especially on Fridays. That’s when the meat draw is held, a raffle of choice cuts of beef and pork for the weekend.

Dorothy Bell, director of the Legion’s Dominion Command membership department, seemed slightly surprised when I asked what reasons she would offer someone in my age bracket who was thinking of joining. “Why would anyone join? If you believe in what the Legion stands for, you can form your own opinions on what you have to give. It is an opportunity to learn.”

There’s no denying the Legion needs new members. Though it has a 90 per cent renewal rate, it is faced with the fact that old soldiers must inevitably fade away. I’m proud to be able to take up the charge.

©2001 National Post. Reprinted with permission.


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