Top News

COVID-19 deals blow to already-retreating Royal Canadian Legion in Calgary


After months of a COVID-19 lull, Friday night wrestling has returned to Calgary’s Royal Canadian Legion Branch 1.

But the downtown branch is still grappling with a pandemic’s body blow dealt to a veterans’ organization that was already fighting rear-guard actions against dwindling revenues and membership.

“We’ll have to wait out the storm and see what happens … you’re living year-to-year,” said branch president Phil MacAulay.

Among the nine city branches, the No. 1 legion had better positioned itself to weather the storms buffeting the wider organization by offering itself as a venue for a wide variety of events, such as the Sled Island Music & Arts Festival.

But with festival’s cancellation and the Calgary Stampede’s suspension, the branch has lost that cushion.

“Being down close to $100,000 in revenues definitely doesn’t help the bottom line,” said MacAulay.

“If it wasn’t for our 500 members, our doors would have closed five years ago.”

Even so, that membership has dwindled from about 1,300 a decade ago, he said — a challenge afflicting the legion across the province and country.

In Alberta, the membership number sits at about 35,000, one that shrinks three to five per cent a year, said Tammy Wheeler, executive director of the legion’s Alberta-Northwest Territories Command.

“Like everybody else, we’re struggling,” said Wheeler.

All nine of the Calgary branches are in some measure of financial peril, she said, adding the clearer picture of their fate will likely come in the fall, after all the locations have reopened and have a better gauge on revenues.

But Wheeler isn’t optimistic.

“This is going to hit big-time in September,” she said.

The cancellation of the 2020 Stampede is the biggest single blow, said Wheeler, given how dependent many of the branches were on its spillover crowds and festive atmosphere.

She pointed to the Centennial Branch #285 on Horton Rd. S.W., which is normally “packed for 10 days” in the first half of July.

The legion’s national office has provided some financial relief to help its struggling outposts pay their bills while the organization works to fulfill its mandate to help veterans at the same time, she said.

Due to their volunteer model and the size of the legion branches, most of them aren’t eligible for existing federal COVID-19 support, said Wheeler.

“We don’t fit the mould for that funding,” she said.

The national organization is lobbying for some form of federal government aid, while in Alberta, the command is seeking changes to municipal property tax laws to exempt branches from local levies, she said.

Even attempts at pursuing different, modernized models haven’t always borne fruit.

The beleaguered No. 264 Kensington Legion traded valuable inner-city land for a sleek new four-storey glass and steel building in hopes operating a contemporary restaurant and leased spaces out of it would reverse its sliding fortunes when it opened three years ago.

But in 2019, the branch was forced to seek relief on a $30,000 unpaid city tax bill.

A relentless conundrum, said Wheeler, is the legion is “real estate-rich and cash-poor.”

At her #284 Chapelhow Branch in the city’s northeast, president Heather Beaton said the pandemic has only greased its slow slide.

“It’s the (lack of) music that just kills us, it really draws a crowd,” she said.

“We’re quite fortunate because we own our building but if you can’t get people out to support you, you’re done.

“As for the future, I don’t know.”

With half of the legion’s countrywide membership aged 65 and older, time isn’t on the organization’s side.

In 1998, the legion welcomed those with no ties to the military in a bid to grow its numbers and last winter offered a one-year fee holiday for veterans who join.

The organization’s tried to appeal to younger veterans though with limited results, said Beaton, whose branch counts a few Afghan war soldiers among its ranks.

“Some (veterans) resent it’s being run by civilians, but if no one else steps up, what can we do?” she said.

“I don’t know what it would take to be an answer.”

BKaufmann@postmedia.com

on Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories