Articles

How the veterans are fighting the peace

Their pension battles won without bloodshed, most of them wanted to torget the big war. Only one in five joined a veterans’ group, and the biggest of these—the Canadian Legion—is now slowly becoming just another service club

JOHN CLARE February 15 1958
Articles

How the veterans are fighting the peace

Their pension battles won without bloodshed, most of them wanted to torget the big war. Only one in five joined a veterans’ group, and the biggest of these—the Canadian Legion—is now slowly becoming just another service club

JOHN CLARE February 15 1958

How the veterans are fighting the peace

Their pension battles won without bloodshed, most of them wanted to torget the big war. Only one in five joined a veterans’ group, and the biggest of these—the Canadian Legion—is now slowly becoming just another service club

JOHN CLARE

In the Thirties a Toronto schoolteacher, preparing her pupils for Remembrance Day observance, asked them to describe a veteran. "A man who stands on the street corner and sells shoe laces and argues," was one reply.

In the minds of many people today’s war veteran has moved indoors to a Legion hall where he sits around and drinks beer and continues to argue.

Both these pictures are caricatures. As might be expected of a civilian fighting force, Canada's soon reverted to its natural state after both world wars. Most of its members were proud to be in uniform but very glad to be out of it as soon as possible. Except for a lew professional veterans, Canadian ex-servicemen act and look like anyone else their age, even to the unmilitary bearing. The identifying marks left by the war years are hidden deep in their hearts and their memories.

In 1945 people at home wondered how demobilized servicemen would act. how they would fit in. Many of them had gone directly from a depression's lines of jobless into the front lines

of a war. Would they find it possible to settle down? Would they act like special citizens, like veterans? Would they perhaps start their own political party?

Time has provided the answers. They did settle down and behave about the same as anyone else. Those who are active in politics are identified with one or another of the parties in existence before the war. Their readjustment to civilian life was quick and fairly easy, smoothed by a business boom and generous rehabilitation grants.

Today, twelve years after their return, only one in five of Canada's veterans has joined an ex-servicemen's organization. Only half of World War H's veterans have bothered to write Ottawa for the campaign and service medals that are waiting for them.

By far the biggest of the veterans’ organizations is the Canadian Legion with two hundred and twenty thousand members in twenty-three hundred branches in Canada and the United States. Since its beginning in Winnipeg in 1925 the Legion’s mission has continued overleaf

Are they vets or Elks? This is how a Vancouver Legion branch hides its memories in high jinks and good works

been to get a better deal, particularly from the federal government, for all vet-

erans. For many years the Legion has lived by itself and for itself behind the walls of its halls, coming out on Remembrance Day in official regalia to lead the community in services in memory of the fallen.

But with the latest increases in veterans' benefits (two raises in the last twelve months amounting to thirty-four million dollars a year) the Legion finds itself in somewhat the same position as a successful union that has won all its big objectives, such as recognition, and has no battles left to fight except an occasional skirmish over the contract.

Laced with a situation in which the organization must inevitably disappear unless there are new wars to make new members, and concerned with the failure of younger veterans to join and remain in its ranks in large numbers, the Legion has undertaken a new program designed to make itself more attractive to prospective members and to the community at large. The Legion hopes this year to he back up to a quarter of a million members, where it was immediately after the war. and hopes in time to reach the half-million mark. World War II veterans make up about sixty percent of the present membership.

Without abandoning its major tenet that what is good for the veteran is good for Canada, the Legion has gone out of its familiar role to sponsor scores of projeets, ranging from peewee hockey teams to public-speaking contests. Within the Legion itself the social and sports program has been expanded to interest new members; it now runs its own national honspicl. The new Legion looks more like a service club than the old soldiers’ home it sometimes resembled in the past.

“The Legion can continue to be a vital, active force in Canada’s future or it can go into a gradual decline where members sit in the lengthening shadows contemplating their youth. the Very Reverend J. O. Anderson, a padre who was wounded in Holland and who is a former national president, recently said in an interview. It was Anderson who preached the sermon at Christ Church Cathedral, of which he is dean, when the Queen and Prince Philip were in Ottawa.

While there are other influential veterans’ groups, such as the Canadian Corps, the Legion is, in the eyes of its members at least, by far the most effective and the one most responsible for persuading the government to pay out four billion dollars in benefits since World War II.

To help keep the veteran and his needs

constantly before the legislators, the Fegion maintains a national headquarters

in Ottawa, now housed in a new eighthundred-and-ftf tv-thousand-dollar build-

ing. Seventy percent of all the cases its service bureau carries to such government

agencies as the pensions commission are

those of non-members.

Although D. L. Burgess, a retired federal civil servant and current president of the Legion, denies that his organization lobbies, a brief containing its demands is presented each year during the week of Remembrance Day, to the cabinet. When legislation affecting veterans is before the House of Commons legionnaires are urged to write their members and tell them to support it. Copies of the Legionary, the organization’s official magazine, on

one occasion were distributed through the House as propaganda before a vote on a veterans’ measure.

Whether or not this kind of activity technically constitutes lobbying, the Legion is undeniably a pressure group with special interests. However, there have been better-informed pressure groups.

When parliament opened in October to consider a general upgrading of pension payments, including an extension of benefits for veterans, the Legion's headquarters had only an estimate of the number of MPs who were veterans, and no idea how many belonged to the Legion.

They knew, though, that for the first time the prime minister was a member of their organization. John Diefenbaker joined the Legion in Prince Albert, Sask. And they knew that fifteen of his twenty-one colleagues in the cabinet are veterans and legionnaires.

“No politician who was eligible would fail to join the Legion,” said President Burgess confidently as the new parliament assembled. Yet of the hundred and four veterans in a House of two hundred and sixty-five, only fifty-four were members of the Legion.

Because the Legion concentrates its efforts on persuading the government of the day to bring down legislation that will assist veterans, it has stayed clear of identification with any party. Its high command has always included known supporters of the major parties. This not only gives the Legion a look of impartiality, hut gives the organization good liaison no matter what party is in power. Legionnaires might support a veteran candidate in a local election hut the Legion itself never has, and says it never will, officially take a stand for any candidate or party.

They’ve never had it better

This does not mean that the Legion has held itself aloof from political issues, particularly those which affect veterans. Long before World War II was over the Legion began to draw up its own program for the rehabilitation of veterans and present it to the government. The creaky pensions machinery, the skimpy patchwork of benefits originally available to the veteran of World War I was fresh in their memories. Veterans of World War 11 got the best deal any returning Canadian soldiers had ever received. The Legion takes credit for framing the Veterans Land Act, which provided many returning men with good homes. After World War I ill-suited and ill-equipped veterans, some with city backgrounds, had been sent to uncleared farms in remote parts of the country where many suffered hardship and failure.

“Where veterans are concerned the Legion is often the eyes and ears and sometimes the conscience of the people of Canada,” A. J. Brooks, the new minister for Veterans' Affairs, himself a legionnaire from New Brunswick, has said.

From the beginning of World War II the Legion bombarded the government with demands for “total war” to include the conscription of all the country’s resources, including its manpower. Since the end of the war the conscription demand has been revised to a demand for national registration.

In 1946 it wanted all Japanese, except war veterans, deported. During the war it demanded that the government brand all “zombies” traitors. Recently the legion relented and invited those conscripts who saw active service to join the Legion. A few have joined.

In Vancouver, early in 1946, a group of legionnaires from the New Veterans’ Branch took the law into their own hands after resolutions failed. The old Hotel Vancouver, owned by the CPR. had been closed in 1939 but was opened again the next year as a barracks. At the end of the war a campaign, supported by the Legion, was begun to convert the hotel into a hostel for returned men and their families.

On January 26 thirty-five members of the New Veterans’ Branch, with six women, marched through a snow storm and took possession of the building, which, except for a few military guards, was vacant. The veterans marched through the front door and announced to the soldiers on duty that they were taking over. No resistance was offered. Two constables came and asked questions and retired without taking action.

A hundred veterans were in the building by night and by the next day nine hundred had moved and a big banner reading, ACTION AT LAST! VETERANS! ROOMS FOR YOU! COME AND GET THEM! had been strung across the front of the hotel.

The hostel was soon placed under the operation of the Greater Vancouver Citizens’ Rehabilitation Council, with pledges of help from city, provincial and federal governments, and ran until July 1948. Usually it housed at any one time twelve hundred people and over the period gave shelter to five thousand men, women and children.

The same year as the veterans’ occupation of the old Hotel Vancouver came to an end, the Legion was asking for increased immigration, provided it was mostly British. More recently the Ontario Command criticized the help given to Hungarian refugees as being better than the treatment given Canadian veterans. The Legion has long clamored for a Canadian flag but has never been able to agree on a design to submit.

While the Legion’s interests and resolutions have at times ranged beyond the sphere of veterans’ affairs the Canadian organization has never had the American Legion’s reputation for political reaction. The U. S. group has attacked the educational work of the United Nations and through its political activities was closely associated, by its critics, with McCarthyism.

The so-called soldiers’ vote has never had any measurable impact on Canadian political life, probably because it is

widely dispersed geographically and has never been concentrated by a veterans’ organization. Even late in the war, when servicemen as a group were highly critical of the manpower policy, they failed to register any effective protest at the polls.

Political organizers regard war service as a diminishing asset for a candidate. Whatever magic it might have wrought immediately after the war, voters now act as though they believe that bravery in the field is no guarantee of skill in the legislature. In choosing a candidate they seem to feel that war service is a useful plus for an aspirant to have, provided he measures up in other ways.

The horse rode an elevator

By far the greatest impact ever made on a community by Canada’s veterans in bulk was registered in August 1934 when the first Canadian Corps Reunion was held in Toronto. The Legion had a hand in organizing this rally. A second reunion was held in 1938. A proposal for a third reunion in 1952 was abandoned when the city government turned down a request for a grant of twenty-five thousand dollars. The money was to ensure at least four bottles of beer for each of the celebrants. The Legion declined to support the most recent project.

Sixty thousand came to the 1934 reunion from all parts of the country to meet other Flanders old boys, to get drunk, and possibly to attend some of the meetings. It was a wonderful chance to brush aside for a while the dank mists of the Depression.

Men pranced around fires lit at main intersections, a horse was taken for a ride in a hotel elevator and the pandemonium went three times around the clock. When it was all over there were hundreds of veterans stranded without even enough money to start the return trip on the rods.

By 1938 Toronto felt it had recovered sufficiently to renew the invitation and

“There’s a spiritual, almost mystical quality; Even a glimpse is hard for outsiders to catch”

this time a hundred thousand showed up. By the end of the three-day reunion three had been killed by the revelry, and three hundred hurt.

Yet at the very heart of both these reunions, and discernible only at the huge drumhead services of remembrance, there was a spiritual, almost mystical, quality that all veterans' organizations have. Even a glimpse of it is hard for the outsider to catch, for it makes itself known only to those who were there together. What may look like the sentimentality of old soldiers is a truly profound feeling compounded of danger shared and the awareness of the ghostly presence of those who died.

Sir Arthur Currie, a former president, said it for the Legion when it was young when he said. “They served till dead, why not we?” Legionnaires are not ashamed to talk of their organization in these terms. Their words might sometimes sound merely pious if they were not so obviously sincere and if they did not back them up with a remarkable record of service.

Bill Caswell, of Toronto, cannot remember a week in the past thirty years that he has not been out one night or more on Legion business.

“1 joined the Legion because 1 didn't like the prospect of going through life without helping other people.” Arthur Adams, Toronto district commander, told me.

Charlie Logan, president of the Mount Dennis branch in Toronto, is used to getting telephone calls in the middle of the night from veterans in distress. “One night 1 was called out to help a Guelph veteran whose car had broken down. He had only a dollar in his pocket and said when he ran into difficulties he looked up the telephone number of the nearest Legion branch. 1 gave him enough money from our welfare fund to get him on his way.”

All welfare grants from the Legion are gifts: none is a loan. No elected officers are paid.

Here are some typical Legion projects:

A contribution of twenty thousand dollars was made to the Canadian Olympic Training Fund to obtain better coaching for young athletes.

In Fenelon Falls, Ont., the branch bought an ambulance for the community and opened a safety campaign for children.

University scholarships worth fifteen thousand dollars were granted to the sons and daughters of veterans, bringing the total spent by the Ontario Command on this project to eighty-eight thousand dollars.

The Cheticamp, N.S., branch donated the furnishings for a hospital room.

Ontario legionnaires have been asked to will their corneas to the eye bank conducted by the CNIB.

Trail, B.C., legionnaires organized a senior citizens’ club, making their own clubrooms available to it.

A public-speaking contest for Ontario secondary and elementary school children is conducted by the Legion on a province-wide basis.

The Dunnville, Ont., branch has sponsored a Teen Town to give the young people of the town more recreational facilities.

A national foster-father plan, whereby all members are encouraged to give a helping hand to the children of deceased

veterans, has now been launched.

A low-cost rental housing project has been started for veterans in Ottawa, where units are already occupied at thirty-five dollars a month. Houses arc being built in Montreal and Toronto.

In addition to gifts of food and fuel to needy veterans, many of the branches give an outright gift of three hundred dollars to a widow of a veteran to cover immediate expenses at the time of death.

Some of the cost of these projects is paid for by fees, which average about six dollars per member a year. Out of this a payment or “tax" goes forward to maintain the provincial and dominion commands. Ottawa gets a dollar seventy from each member's fees to maintain the headquarters.

A well-known enterprise that the Legion conducts, and from which the organization makes about three hundred thousand dollars a year, is the sale of poppies prior to Remembrance Day. The poppies are bought from Vetcraft. a nonprofit company operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which sells all of its output to the Dominion Command. Headquarters in turn sells the poppies to the provincial commands at a markup, and they do the same with the branches who sell them to the public.

In Toronto the city took away the Legion's tag-day privileges as a result of complaints of mismanagement, and the franchise was granted to Poppy Fund Incorporated in which several veterans' groups, not including the Legion, are represented. These groups use the profit from the sale of poppies to finance their own welfare projects. But. three years ago. the Legion invaded the Toronto area by mail with its own poppies. The Legion has been bitterly criticized for entering into competition in the sale of the scarlet symbols of sacrifice.

“More than beer and bingo”

While the Legion continues to compete in the sale of poppies in Toronto, it gives signs of being acutely aware of what the public thinks of the organization as a w'hole. It hopes that its new' communityconscious program will help to convince Canadians that there is more to the Legion than beer, bingoes, poppies and an occasional parade. But the Legion still faces the problem of attracting more younger men. The election of Alfred Watts, a Vancouver air-force veteran, as national president in 1950 indicated to them that there was high office open to them if they wanted it and has helped to dispel the impression that the older men covet control.

The Legion knows why some World War II veterans have not joined. They are not joiners as their fathers were. Some are repelled by the presence of men who use the Legion hall as a refuge. “They’re the kind who never came home emotionally,” says one former air-force man.

Some men such as Ron White, of Toronto, who was with a reconnaissance regiment overseas, went to one meeting and never went back. "They seemed to be more interested in drinking beer than in the veterans,” he says. A Winnipeg man recently told this story of his initiation into a branch:

“I got there at the appointed hour with half a dozen other guys. The branch officers were an hour late, so we drank beer while we waited. We were

pretty sodden when they arrived and they were half-cut themselves. They lined us all up to take the oath of allegiance. The sight of all us drunks arranged before the Bible and the flag was so disgusting and at the same time ridiculous that 1 wanted to giggle.

“After the ceremony the branch president called to the sergeant-at-arms, ‘Buy these men a beer.' I drank my beer and never set foot in the place again."

But the initiation ceremony as it is performed in the great majority of branches is a solemn ritual, which underlines the legionnaires' devotion to the pledge to continue to serve in peace as they did in war. The ceremony includes a call to remembrance phrased in Lawrence Binyon’s familiar and eloquent words, which begin. "They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old . . .”

The charge that membership in the Legion is just an excuse to drink beer is a criticism frequently made but only twenty-one percent of its branches have beer licenses. A handful more have licenses to run cocktail lounges. However, many more would like to have bars or “canteens” because they are a rich source of revenue and because the men they are trying to persuade to join are men who sometimes take a drink.

Some branches make as much as fifty thousand dollars a year out of the sale of beer. Without this source of revenue, they say, their welfare and community programs would suffer. To some branches beer is the major source of income.

Most canteens look and smell like any other beer parlor but in some cities (Lethbridge is one) clean pleasant lounges where members can bring their wives and girl friends have been added.

In some towns the Legion Hall is a community centre, open to the public for

dances and bingoes. For travelers and strangers who can arrange guest privileges it has all the advantages of a club and in some dry areas where the Legion is permitted to run a canteen or bar it is the only place to get a drink.

The Legion is aware that the manner in which each branch conducts itself determines the picture and the estimate the people of that town will have not only of legionnaires but veterans as a group, so the Legion keeps a close eye on the branches. But in spite of its vigilance there are cases every year of branches running afoul the liquor regulations or local bylaws. The charters of such branches are suspended by the Legion, and can be revoked.

The biggest bingo in town

One of the biggest and most unusual Legion operations in Canada is conducted by the Vancouver Mount Pleasant Branch 177, whose nine hundred members have a new million-dollar building and access to a co-operative store and a credit union. The three-story building contains an eight-lane bowling alley, a restaurant, and two coffee bars, which are run on a commercial basis and are open to the public.

The branch has no liquor license but operates the biggest bingo game in the city, and the revenue from this and the other facilities it offers maintains both the branch and an extensive welfare program that supplies comforts to hospitalized veterans and non-veterans alike.

In the winter the Saturday night crowds average 1,950. Players are packed not only into a new bingo room, but also into the branch’s gymnasium and into another hall next door. The biggest crowd on any one night was 2,105.

The Friday night crowd averages a thousand, and Monday through Thursday there are about seven hundred players. In the summer attendance falls off slightly, but this is compensated for by a bingo game the branch runs at the Pacific National Exhibition—the biggest game on the grounds, with room for more than two thousand players.

In the course of a year the estimated bingo attendance is 275,000 to 300,000 people. By law the Legion can make fifty cents from each person, everything above that going into prizes. The fifty cents isn't clear profit, of course, for expenses have also to be paid.

The man behind these enterprises is seventy-year-old Lewis MacDonald. A stocky and dynamic man. MacDonald was, in 1915, Canadian lightweight boxing champion, and is a veteran of both wars. He has become Vancouver's most widely known legionnaire.

When he returned from overseas in 1944, where he had served as a boxing instructor, MacDonald became president of a new branch in Vancouver. “When they decided to go for a beer license 1 resigned,” he says, “and founded 177.”

In many ways the branch is a family affair. Lewis MacDonald is general manager of all three enterprises—Legion, coop and credit union. His wife is also active. His thirty-seven-year-old son Elmer MacDonald has the post of secretarymanager of the building itself.

While the chief sources of revenue for the Canadian Legion’s big program are still beer and bingo, much of the hard work is done by the hundred thousand women in the Ladies’ Auxiliaries. These are the wives, daughters and mothers of legionnaires, and are not eligible to join the Legion itself. Nursing sisters, and women who enlisted in the three armed

services are, of course, eligible for full membership.

The auxiliary of a hundred and fifty women at the Todmorden branch, in Toronto. raised twenty thousand dollars in 1956 to help with work among veterans and in the community. Mrs. Jean Lyon is a member of that group and this is her week: “We play darts on Monday night —that's social. But Tuesday nights we help to run the bingo and on Wednesday after the bowling the women put on the social night here in the hall. We have a meeting every other Thursday and on Friday and Saturday nights there is always catering to be done. Our auxiliary supplies the food for the parties and receptions for which we rent the hall.”

The money they make goes to the cancer fund, the St. John Ambulance, the Legion’s own scholarship fund and the Olympic training plan. The women bought kitchen equipment worth twenty-five hundred dollars for the branch. Once a month they go to Sunnybrook Veterans' Hospital and put on a bingo for the exservicemen: they also visit the veterans at the Weston Sanitarium and leave them parcels of comforts as well as cash gifts.

Some Legion members arc concerned by the growing emphasis on making money, even for good works. They are afraid that original objectives could be obscured. These legionnaires long for simpler days when a man could sit and drink a pint of beer while he talked about the war and beefed about his pension without having a bingo game howling around his ears.

But to most the new Legion, more closely integrated with the life of the community, means a stronger Legion, one that will continue to command attention and respect when it speaks for Canada’s veterans. ★