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The BCEL At 75

by Tom MacGregor

“This conference has taken on more the nature of a pilgrimage to the site of our founding,” Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh told delegates to the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League conference in Cape Town, South Africa. “I could almost feel (the founders’) presence during the opening ceremony.”

Those founders were members of veterans organizations in Great Britain, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Transvaal and Natal who came together to form the original British Empire Services League in Cape Town in February 1921. But if this was a pilgrimage, it was not one to remember deeds long-past or mourn those who had died in their youth. The Feb. 25 to March 1 meeting was a tribute to the survivors, who have kept on caring about their comrades long after their fighting days were over.

The BCEL usually meets every three years, but a four-year gap was allowed at the 1992 conference to allow South Africa to host the conference on the league’s 75th anniversary. “In February 1992 in Wellington, New Zealand, at the 25th conference, we made a plea on behalf of the South African Legion for the 26th conference to be held in our country,” National President Tony Chemaly told the 116 delegates at the meeting. “We said that we believed that by 1996 we would have a new government in South Africa and I quote what was said, ‘God willing, we will again be a member of the Commonwealth.’”

South Africa did get a new government in 1994 and soon after rejoined the Commonwealth. Hosting the conference was both an homage to the past and celebration of the new South Africa, with democratic elections and an end to apartheid, the official policy of segregation that caused South Africa to be isolated from most of the western world. “We asked you to come. You have come…thank you so much for trusting us,” added Chemaly.

But the return to Cape Town would also be a time to reflect on the future and consider whether it is time to wrap up the BCEL’s work, change its name and mandate, or establish a new league of Commonwealth veterans to continue serving those who have become veterans in the conflicts former British colonies have fought since their independence.

Each country at the conference had one vote, but could be represented by more than one delegate. Making the journey for The Royal Canadian Legion were Dominion President Hugh Greene, Dominion First Vice Joe Kobolak and Dominion Secretary Duane Daly. Canada has a special responsibility within BCEL for looking after veterans in the Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean, as Australia and New Zealand do to a smaller extent in the Pacific.

The original league was established by Field Marshal Earl Haig. Having already founded branches of the British Legion in Scotland and England, he then went to South Africa to establish the South African Legion. There he called together the representatives of other veterans organizations, including the Great War Veterans Association that represented Canada and would later become the driving force behind establishing Canada’s Legion in 1925-26. Philip, who followed Lord Louis Mountbatten as grand president, said, “I think South Africa was chosen in part to give recognition to the important role the colonies had played in the Great War.”

Each member organization pays an affiliation fee towards the administration of the BCEL and is asked to contribute according to their means towards its welfare work. Further funds have been raised, mostly through the 1985-89 Prince Philip’s Appeal for Commonwealth Veterans. “The BCEL is a registered charity,” explained Tom Russel, the chairman of the Standing Committee on Welfare Programs. “But it is an organization the needy ex-servicemen can ask for assistance with pride and as a right.”

Today the BCEL has a staff of four in London working in office space donated by the Royal British Legion. In the welfare committee’s report presented by Russel, he noted that over the last six years grants expenditures has averaged 146,172 pounds–approximately $304,525 Cdn–given as either individual grants or bulk grants to member organizations. Individual grants can be pensions or one-time grants according to special needs.

Secretary-General Mike Doyle explained that grants to member organizations fall into two categories, those which support the administration by paying the salary of a secretary or providing equipment, or bulk welfare grants to be distributed as the organization sees fit. Emergency funding is also given in times of disaster such as flooding in Bangladesh.

Activities began with a wreath-placing ceremony conducted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize. After prayers and readings by Philip and Deputy Grand President Sir Desmond Cassidi, Tutu gave an address calling apartheid, which was introduced in 1948, South Africa’s nightmare. “But we have awakened and that nightmare is over,” he said.

The next morning another Nobel Peace Prize winner was the centre of attention as South African President Nelson Mandela officially opened the conference. Mandela shared the 1993 peace prize with then-President F.W. de Klerk following a negotiated agreement to end apartheid and hold democratic elections. While his staff was publicly denying rumors of ill-health, Mandela showed some of the youth and energy of the country by dressing casually for the occasion and then by joining a choir singing and dancing as delegates watched.

“It is with deep satisfaction that I join the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League celebration, not as a guest speaker, but as a member. Besides having the honour of being the patron-in-chief of the South African chapter, my membership of the then-Mkonto We Sizwe qualifies me as a legionnaire.”

He compared his fight for freedom with those fought by the veterans gathered. “The same ideals that moved those who founded this league three quarters of a century ago, inspired millions of South Africans to resist and fight any form of oppression and deprivation that we encountered. The decision of the league to hold its 26th conference in South Africa was the most treasured gift you could have presented to our young democracy.”

Ceremonies over, delegates settled down to work in the afternoon at the BMW Pavilion, a multi-media conference centre sponsored by the automaker along Cape Town’s rejuvenated and now-trendy Waterfront. There delegates debated resolutions and listened to reports from each of the 44 countries represented.

Even as the century draws to an end, new organizations are joining the BCEL. The Fraternal Union of Cameroon Ex-Servicemen represents about 5,000 ex-servicemen or their widows. Most served in the Royal West African Frontier Force in WW II. One of the younger delegates at the conference was 47-year-old Mohamed Hersi who represents the 15-month-old Somaliland Scouts Associations. Though Somaliland is now part of Somalia, the association represents about 500 WW II veterans who served in the British Army, Hersi said. “They mostly served as scouts in Burma….They are not able to get around so easily. I live in London so they asked me to represent them.”

The many changes undergone by the South African Legion were explained by National Vice-President Kevin Mulligan. “Since we last met, South Africa has rejoined the family of nations after a dark period of strife and isolation….The past is being swept away to make place for a new South Africa.”

Mulligan said the Legion had made constitutional changes so all veterans, including those who like Mandela served in the Mkonto We Sizwe–the military wing of the African National Congress–and the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army could become members. “(Those who) went into exile to fight for their beliefs are now being welcomed into our ranks alongside the veterans of the South African forces and those of the now defunct homelands.”

South Africa has never had as many veterans as it now has–some 660,000, including those who fought in the world wars, Korea and Angola, Mulligan said. Even under apartheid the Legion had fought for and succeeded in getting parity for war pensions for ex-servicemen regardless of race. “A great task lies ahead for the Legion in the fields of pensions, welfare and replacing the old guard with those who fought in the more recent struggle. Above all, the Legion will have to make its voice heard as the spokesman of all those who served their country.”

The Canadian Legion also spoke about its own changes. “We appreciate the urgency for us to adapt to a changing world for the good of all those people we help–veterans, seniors and youth–through the many programs we run and support,” said Greene. “Now is time to start making those changes. The Canadian Legion must diversify if it is to survive, and younger members will be key to that diversity.”

Business included debate on a resolution put forward by the Royal British Legion urging the Commonwealth to ban anti-personnel land-mines. Canada has declared a moratorium on their production, export and use (Journal, April). Sri Lanka delegate J.E. Perera moved that the resolution be amended to include all land-mines. Scotland representative Sir John Swinton argued against the amendment, saying the resolution is intended to specifically target cheap, plastic land-mines that cannot be detected through conventional sweeping techniques.

“Mines are part of the arsenal of any modern armed force,” agreed Digger James of Australia. “We will get along further if we specifically mention the anti-personnel mines.”

The motion passed as amended, though Canada voted with Scotland, Australia and others against the amendment. “It was not a vote against the resolution, we merely wanted the resolution to pass as originally worded,” explained Daly.

Other resolutions that passed included a demand that Japan pay compensation to its Commonwealth Far East prisoners of WW II; a request that all Commonwealth countries negotiate reciprocal agreements to protect the pensions of veterans who move to other Commonwealth countries; and a call for recognition of the effects of stress on the physical health of those who serve in the military.

Greene seconded a motion that called upon all Commonwealth governments to pay proper compensation to those who served in the armed forces. “Young people have gone to war and were killed….Those who did return and the surviving families of those who paid the ultimate price for freedom were soon forgotten. Jobs were taken from them by those who did not go to war. They received little in the way of pay while at war, and nothing in the way of recompense after it,” he said. “That is why these service organizations that we represent were formed–to ensure this does not happen again.”

By far the greatest attention was given to a resolution that was presented on the last full day of the conference. Led by Prince Philip, the debate dealt with a resolution proposed by BCEL headquarters calling upon its council to seek the views of member organizations on the BCEL’s future and make proposals for amending its constitution at the next conference. “At our last conference we discussed the question of how long we will be able to continue. We don’t feel that all the organizations have grasped this concept,” Philip said. “It was thought that when the BCEL fulfilled its role the BCEL would cease to operate. If there is to be a future for a Commonwealth veterans association then we have to know how it will be funded.”

He said the BCEL has to consider four categories of ex-service personnel currently being helped by member organizations. There are WW I, WW II and other war veterans of service under the Crown; service personnel who served under the Crown before their country became independent; ex-service personnel in realms and territories of Britain; and ex-service personnel who served Commonwealth countries after their independence. Delegates agreed the intention of the BCEL has been to help veterans who served under the Crown and that for the most part would end with the last WW II veteran.

Among the options to be considered would be to let the BCEL wind down and put its remaining funds into a trust to be administered until there are no more WW II veterans. Or the BCEL could change its name and continue to look at all categories but that would mean finding a new form of funding. Another option would be for the BCEL to assist in establishing a new organization of Commonwealth veterans. Canada’s Legion might also consider continuing its work in the Caribbean outside the BCEL.

While many of the newer countries argued for a continuation of the work for all ex-service personnel in the Commonwealth, others expressed concern that the polity could lead in some cases to supporting former enemies. Peter Short of Barbados questioned whether poppies could legitimately be used to raise funds for veterans of more recent conflicts.

Greene challenged members to accept a change that would continue the work of the BCEL: “The Royal Canadian Legion has provided for its future. We have accepted sons and daughters. The BCEL should be ready to change for its future.”

The resolution passed with a corollary that member organizations make their views known to BCEL headquarters by April 1997. From there the future will be decided when the BCEL meets for the first time in the Caribbean in 1999, hosted by Barbados.

Having returned to the site of its founding, BCEL delegates prepared to go home wondering if the work started 75 years ago is finally finishing–or a new chapter about to begin.

Thanks From The Caribbean

There was no stopping the veterans organizations of Caribbean countries from paying tribute to the work of The Royal Canadian Legion during the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

Started by Charles Benn of the Guyana Legion, each representative of the Caribbean countries attending the conference spoke of Canada’s help in supplying pensions or other forms of financial aid to their veterans. One of the first to speak was Peter Short of Barbados, a country that has not required the help many others have. “The Royal Canadian Legion helps us with donating poppy supplies which are our main source of fund-raising. But we are grateful to know that we have a friend in the case of an emergency such as a hurricane.”

The comments came after Dominion President Hugh Greene presented a special report on the Legion’s work in the Caribbean. He said the three-member BCEL Canada Committee meets bi-monthly at Legion House in Ottawa and visits each of the 15 Commonwealth nations on a three- to four-year cycle. “On average the committee processes approximately 70 requests for assistance per year. Since 1991 we have been able to help in one form or another in about 90 per cent of the requests received to the tune of $653,652.”

Greene noted the Legion recently changed its emphasis in the region from providing money for projects to providing direct financial aid to needy veterans and their dependants. “This was simply because many of the projects did not work out as planned and we found that the need for individual assistance was more pressing.”

Greene said the member organizations were asked to identify all the needy veterans in their countries. The most recent reports show there are more than 5,000 veterans in the Caribbean eligible for assistance and an equal number of spouses, widows and other dependants. “Today we are confident that we have the vast majority of those in need identified and being looked after in some form or another.”

Between $8,000 to $10,000 is spent each year supplying poppy material to the islands to help with fund-raising. At times the Legion also supplies office equipment. Last year an agreement was reached with the Department of National Defence that when space permitted such material would be flown to the Caribbean in military aircraft on training or operational missions.

“With the continued support of our members and the veterans organizations in the 15 member nations, we are committed to providing care and comfort to our comrades who have served,” concluded Greene. “To do less would be a sign that we have broken faith with those who have gone before.”


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