Mary-Ann Latimer was just a teenager when, in the 1960s, she first began helping out at the Aylmer Legion where her father, Gerry Arts, was an active member. At parties, she often volunteered at the coat check, or in the kitchen, preparing food.
Arts served in the Royal Canadian Air Force after coming to Canada from Holland, where he was in the Dutch army during the Second World War. He was in Holland, a teenager himself, when Canadian forces liberated the country.
“He was so impressed by how the Canadians treated them when they went into Holland that he wanted to come over here,” says Latimer. “He felt like he owed Canada something for helping him, so he came here and joined the RCAF.”
That sense of duty was obviously passed along to Latimer, who these days is president of the same Aylmer Legion, branch No. 33, and vice-commander for the district, which includes 10 West Quebec branches.
As such, she is keenly aware of the dire straits legions currently face due to the coronavirus pandemic, difficulties that in some cases pose serious and immediate threats to their very existence.
“I would not be surprised if many legions just cannot make it,” she says.
In turn, the veterans and their families who rely on their local legions for any number of supports and services are likewise being adversely affected. Perhaps never before has the commonly echoed phrase “Lest We Forget” carried such significance.
“We’ve had some tough times and some good times,” Latimer adds, “but this is something we’ve never had to deal with before. We are basically shut down and cannot generate any revenue. We’re doing everything we can at our legion to get through this, and it’s a struggle every day.
“Right now we’re just scraping by.”
Evelyn Brunton, president of the Westboro Legion, branch No. 480, notes that their top priority is to take care of veterans and their families. Remembrance is next, followed by community. But none of it is possible, she adds, if legions can’t operate.
“Like all legions, we’re hoping very much to stay open. They create a social connection for so many seniors in our community. But right now, there isn’t a loose penny anywhere.”
Legions rely heavily on events and rentals to pay the bills and keep their doors open. At Aylmer’s, for example, weekly Thursday night dinners, Friday night darts, and Saturday night parties or other bookings from outside groups contribute to pay the 160-member organization’s business taxes, utilities, staffing and other expenses. Without that income, branch No. 33 has been forced to lay off its three employees and now relies on donations, including a GoFundMe campaign, to cover expenses.
“Each month, we budget how much it’s going to cost us just to keep the doors open,” says Latimer, “and then we scramble to figure out how we’re going to raise that amount of money. And then as soon as we raise that money, it’s on to the next month and starting the process over again.”
The Aylmer Legion has raised some money renting out their parking spaces, while outside groups have held fundraisers for them, including a golf tournament and cake sale, but it’s a tough slog. Even with such efforts, Latimer estimates their reserves will dry up in about three months without additional funds coming in.
“Basically, we’re living in the generosity of donations now. Without this kind of help, we would not be able to stay open.”
Other legions have been driven to take similar fundraising routes. The Westboro, Arnprior and Greely and District legions are among those area branches that have turned to GoFundMe to stay afloat during the pandemic.
Greely’s physically large facility, No. 627, coupled with its small membership of only about 60, makes things there particularly difficult, according to immediate past president Ivan Wyman.
Closed since March 11, the branch has so far managed to pay its bills, but winter may prove a mountain too high, with annual heating costs running the club about $20,000.
“If we don’t get our heat on, we’ll lose our two buildings,” says Wyman. “We’re in real trouble.”
“We usually get about $100,000 a year in rentals, and this year we’ve lost all that.”
The Greely Legion is located on the site of the former HMCS Gloucester naval radio station used to detect German U-boats during the Second World War. “There’s a lot of history here,” says Wyman, “which is another reason we want to save it.
“But if something doesn’t come around, it’s gone,” he adds, “and once it’s gone, it’ll be gone forever. It’ll never open again.”
Things aren’t quite as dire at the Westboro Legion, but neither are they rosy, with Brunton estimating that their current savings are enough to tide the branch over for three or four months.
“It’s pretty precarious,” she says. “We need between $2,500 and $3,000 every month just to pay our regular bills, whether we’re open or closed.”
The Westboro branch’s closure last March came a day before their St. Patrick’s Day party, so not only did they lose proceeds from that function, but by the time they could re-open on reduced hours, four-and-a-half months later, the $20,000 worth of stock they purchased for the party had passed its expiration date and couldn’t be returned.
A 250-member branch, Westboro has also lost income from its regular darts, pool and bingo nights, and the weddings, memorials, dances, trivia nights and other rentals that make up most of their annual income.
“We normally have something every week,” says Brunton, “and that includes the community. And now we can’t have anything.”
Help may be around the corner. The federal government’s Bill C-4, or the COVID-19 Response Measures Act, which received royal assent on Oct. 2, has earmarked $20 million for veterans’ organizations.
“We do know that funds can be used for operational needs and that’s what branches have been waiting for,” said Nujma Bond, communications manager at the Royal Canadian Legion’s Dominion Command. “However, we don’t know how the aid package will be administered or exactly when.”
Across the country, meanwhile, legions continue to help out where they can, given their limited resources. In Hudson, Que., the legion has teamed up with a quilting group to make and sell masks. The Aurora, Ont. legion used its branch to host a blood-donor clinic, while numerous other branches’ kitchens are making school lunches and Meals on Wheels. One, in Fonthill, Ont., offers drive-thru meals.
But the pandemic is leaving many veterans out in the cold, with the outbreak adding to the number of requests for help from funds raised through the annual poppy drive. This year’s donations through poppies and wreaths are expected to be far lower than in past years.
Funds raised by branches through the poppy campaign are kept in separate trusts and can only be used for certain non-operational purposes, such as supporting food cupboards, boys and girls clubs or, through the national Leave the Streets Behind campaign, homeless vets. Legions in Ottawa typically donate a large portion of their poppy funds to the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre.
All legions, however, direct some of their poppy funds to local initiatives; among the Aylmer Legion’s, for example, are student bursaries, a sock donation program, and relief directed to individual veterans for such basic needs as housing and groceries. Greely has donated money to such causes as the Winchester District Memorial Hospital and the Osgoode Care Centre, while individual requests might include funds to build a wheelchair ramp, fix a leaky roof or buy oil for a furnace.
According to Latimer, requests from individuals have increased during the pandemic. “We’ve had more requests directly through our poppy fund for things like that, to help people get back on their feet.”
But in a cruel twist, the pandemic that has created a greater need for aid for veterans has also reduced the ability of legions to help. With fewer businesses open and greater restrictions in place, Latimer says it will be tougher to get poppy donation boxes into the community.
“It’ll be difficult this year. We can put boxes at places like Tim Hortons, but one of the difficulties of that is that a lot of them now are only drive-thru, so people will not be dropping change in the boxes like they would when they walked into the store.”
On top of that, the Aylmer Legion has decided this year not to allow its veterans to solicit donations in shopping centres and other public places.
“I’m not letting my veterans go stand in a mall. It’s too dangerous.”
In recent years, the Aylmer Legion has raised about $25,000 through poppy donations. This year, Latimer says she’ll be surprised if they reach $10,000. At Greely, Wyman also doubts they’ll reach $10,000, about half of what they usually collect.
Additionally, there will be no in-person Remembrance Day ceremony at Aylmer’s cenotaph this year, with an online Facebook one instead, while Greely’s pair of ceremonies — an indoor one typically held on the Sunday before Remembrance Day, and an outdoor one on Nov. 11 — are likewise cancelled. Westboro’s plans remained uncertain. And, for the first time in their histories, branches will remain closed, as COVID shuts vets out of what for many is a significant part of their social life.
“The average age of our members is about 70,” says Brunton, “and we have people who would come in nearly every afternoon, people who very likely live alone, just to get together and talk. It’s a place to hang out and meet your friends.”
Latimer, meanwhile, describes the legion as a family. “When you walk into a legion, you’re very safe. People will probably turn and say hi to you, even if they don’t know you. And you might walk from table to table to chat. But with the new restrictions, you can’t do that anymore.
“It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be really tough. But one of the things that the Aylmer Legion has, thank God, is an outstanding group of volunteers who are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the place open.
“I’ve been a member of this legion, off and on, for many, many years, and as its president, I will not accept the idea that it will shut down. As long as I’m president, we’ll be creative and find a way to keep this going.”