As the future of legions across Canada remains uncertain, one branch in Saskatoon is adapting for survival.
Nutana Legion, tucked away on Louise Street, shares the familiar architecture of a veterans’ hall with a large gathering space, bar and offices for volunteers. But unlike some others, its membership is growing.
“It’s not increasing in great big droves, but it is increasing. Two, three people every week,” said branch president Janet Bennett.
One of three official branches in Saskatoon, Nutana has around 700 members – a stable enough base for Bennett to say the legion is doing well. But its growth comes at a cost as veterans join following the closure of legions in smaller Saskatchewan communities.
Bennett is also keenly aware Nutana’s future rests on younger members. In Saskatchewan, anyone 19 or older may join a legion – regardless of personal affiliation to the Armed Forces – and that’s exactly what the 63-year-old president hopes to see in the coming years.
“Everyone has been affected in some way, shape or form because of war, because of what is happening with terrorism,” she said.
“We have a lot of new Canadian citizens that have been through so many traumas in their lives in the countries they’ve come from – there’s no reason why you can’t be a member.”
But membership isn’t the only solution. In July, Nutana hosted a Pokémon Go event that drew hundreds to the hall, and later this month it will host two burlesque nights.
“Maybe some of our older membership might not appreciate it, but it’s going to happen. We need to make changes. We have to come into this day and age.”
Over at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 63 on Spadina Crescent West, membership has stayed around 250 people for the last several years with the legion profiting more from its popular hall rentals.
The legions’ adaptations are also evident on a deeper level, as they continue a mandate to support veterans and their families now with a focus on mental health.
Bennett served 32 years in the medical corp and went on three deployments to Germany, Egypt and up north to Alert, Nunavut. She connects with fellow veterans by sharing her experience of living with an operational stress injury, but chooses not to detail what led to the diagnosis.
“When you start to share too openly, then it traumatizes the people you’re communicating with. And secondary trauma is a huge issue when it comes to PTSD.”
It’s knowledge she’s gained from her work outside the legion with the Department of National Defence as peer support coordinator for veterans with operational stress injuries. While PTSD and major depressive disorders are gaining attention, Bennett noted conditions have always plagued soldiers.
“First World War, Second World War, you had battle fatigue, shell shock, nostalgia. And all of these were mental health conditions, nobody realized it,” she said.
“They just figured people were sad or they were angry or they just drank too much and they just carried on with life.”
Bennett credits legions with filling the support void by helping veterans connect with an understanding community. As for what would happen if one closed in Saskatoon, Bennett said she would rather see the local legions amalgamate into one “bigger and better place.”
“The legion is here to support the veterans and their families,” she said. “That’s why you’re sharing the wealth of knowledge, the wealth of veterans.”
Legion membership costs $60 and provides access to weekly events– sometimes with a nominal door charge –along with some of the cheapest bar prices in the city.