As Legion memberships decline across the country, Sooke’s Royal Canadian Legion is thriving and presents a model for what other branches might consider in their fight to stay relevant.
“We currently have 570 active members and are actually one of the bigger branches within the Legion organization,” Merle Fulton, branch secretary, said.
“A lot of that is tied to the fact that we have great volunteers and a dedicated staff.”
Fulton said the Sooke Legion branch has made a point of staying an important part of the community by transitioning away from being a private club for veterans to being open to the public.
“We now have exercise groups, business meetings, and a lot of other activities going on, every day of the week. We’re open seven days a week and our kitchen is always ready to offer a great lunch or early supper,” Fulton said.
She also pointed out the branch supports two cadet corps in the community and by so doing, may be building the membership of tomorrow.
It’s an approach applauded by Rick Sanders, the Legion’s command service officer for Vancouver Island.
“There is definitely a focus on getting younger people involved. We need to get the message out that this is no longer an old boys club,” Sanders said.
“The Legion used to be the cornerstone of a lot of communities, offering support not only to veterans but to the community at large, but we started losing that status. What they’re doing in Sooke is exactly the right approach.”
The shift in approach comes not a moment too soon as Legion branches across the country have faced declining memberships that have left many branches with no choice but to shutter their doors.
Membership nationwide has dropped from 604,000 in 1984 to a little more than 270,000 today.
But Randy Hayley, the deputy director of member services for the Royal Canadian Legion is quick to remind people that the Legion is still a significant force, right across the country.
“We have 1,400 Branches and are one of Canada’s largest volunteer forces. We won’t be disappearing any time soon.”
He pointed to several success stories with new branches opening in some communities and finding themselves “bursting at the seams.”
Hayley said the Legion gives every military member who is leaving the military a free one-year membership in hopes that they will join their local Legion branch.
“It’s hard, though. These days younger people are far more likely to connecting on their devices and the days of going out to interact are fading. We have to change to be relevant to that generation,” Sanders said.
But while Fulton agrees with that observation, she stresses the Legion can also play a big role in the community, not only as a social setting, but in an advocacy role.
“We’ve always been there to support veterans in accessing services and benefits, but these days we also support seniors in the community. You might have an older person who is having trouble navigating a government website, for example. We reach out to them as well, so we become a general support in the community,” Fulton said.
“While we’re never going to forget out mandate to support out veterans and to be there to support them, we’re part of the larger community. In a way, we’re returning to a role that we had in the past, and that’s a good thing.”