They were known as the gathering place. A haven where veterans and their families could socialize, drink and carouse.
Members volunteered throughout their communities, putting on celebrations for Remembrance Day and supporting those returning from wars around the world.
Members played sports such as darts, pool and shuffleboard. They held social events, often with live music, in single-floor buildings that very rarely had windows. The drinks were cheap, as was the food. Hats were removed indoors out of respect for Queen Elizabeth II, whose photo still hangs on the wall in every branch.
The only real cost was membership, open to those who had served their country and their families for a modest fee, but as numbers dwindled and more popular, less-exclusive bars and pubs began to open up, the Legions of yesteryear faced a crisis — update or face disappearance.
For two Legion branches in Calgary — No. 238, in Bowness, an old-school clubhouse where tradition and decor are left very much unchanged, and No. 264, in Kensington, a newly-built $14 million four-story property designed to attract both members and non-members alike — the result is a divide into two camps: The old guard lamenting about the inevitable need to update and the loss it could cause, and those eager to revitalize the face of the Legion by any means necessary.
Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 264: Kensington
“The Friendly Branch”
For 44 years, Dominion Treasurer Mark Barham has been a member of Legion branches across Canada. Hailing from a family of Second World War veterans, Barham’s first branch was No. 23 in North Bay, Ont. From there, he moved to others in St. John, Whitby and Winnipeg before settling in Calgary and getting involved at No. 264 in Kensington 10 years ago.
“I got the official indoctrination because my father was a World War Two vet,” says Barham. “It was kind of a family obligation — you join the Legion, and that’s just the way things work.”
Upon joining the Kensington branch, Barham began to realize that the old building was “well past its due date,” and in need of repairs.
“The roof wasn’t good, the plumbing wasn't good … it was like, what are we going to do now?” Barham explains. “We were sitting on this huge piece of property, so the consequence was that we entered an agreement where, in essence, it became a property swap.”
The “swap” was a land trade between the Kensington Legion and Calgary-based developers Truman Homes for the property immediately next to the Legion site. The old Legion building would be torn down and replaced with a 220-condominium building, and, in return, Truman Homes would cover the costs to build a new branch on the property next door.
After 18 months of building, the result is a four-story, $14 million Legion branch unlike any other.
At 36,000 sq. ft., it boasts a full restaurant — the 1918 Tap & Table, open to the public and with 28-foot high windows — and a Members Lounge on the second floor, with the third floor to be leased for office space and the fourth being used for catered events.
“The new Legion is different, and the reason why it’s different is that you can no longer solely rely upon having a building, a space, solely supported by the membership,” says Barham. “Economically, it doesn’t work.”
Barham describes the new building, which opened June 20, 2017, as a “four-stream revenue opportunity” comprised of the restaurant, membership, leasing and event-hosting. The old building, which was built in 1956, was torn down nearly a year later, on June 4, 2018.
“Legions were [once] gathering places, and by them being gathering places, they were [also] social centres because that’s where everybody went,” says Barham. “You had your doctors, your lawyers, your mayors, your veterans. That’s where people went to socialize, where people went to go tell lies, and stories and just commiserate. Over time, we’ve seen that the presence of them being social centres in larger cities has diminished.”
“The point being is that: How do we survive going into the future? We have to re-invent what we look like … we’re asset-rich and cash-flow poor.”
Barham, who describes the new branch as a “power centre,” explains that there is an “absolute need” for Legions to re-invigorate, and is unsure of what might happen if other Legions choose not to. This includes attracting younger members to help supplement the rising age of veterans.
He explains that nationally, 75 per cent of Legion members are 75 years or older, but the gearing of the new Legion building towards a younger audience has resulted in both an increase in membership and a quadrupling of sales volume in the year since the opening.
“We’ve reinvigorated the Legion,” says Barham. “We took possession of the building on June 8th, last year. From June 8th, through to the end of , we grew the membership by 525 members.”
This brings the total number of members to “just under 1900” says Barham, who anticipates surpassing 2000 members by the end of 2018.
“I always use the phraseology that it’s not your father or grandfather’s Legion,” explains Barham. “This is new. This is your Legion.”
This “new” approach to the Legion also involves a relaxing of certain social convention and traditions, such as the the need remove one’s hat upon entering the building out of respect for the Queen, whose photo still hangs on a wall.
“You can wear a hat here, doesn’t matter,” says Barham. “Upstairs, the tradition is that you take your hat off because you’re paying respect to the Queen … that’s just house rules.”
“At the same time, we let house rules sag for special events. A halloween dance, if you’re going to wear a hat, you’re going to wear a hat. Or, for Stampede, wearing a cowboy hat. Whatever, that’s fine.”
Barham explains that while each Legion branch is autonomous, there are a set of regulations they live by. There is also the pre-conceived notion of what a Legion should be and look like, and the reception of Branch No. 264 hasn’t always positive.
“You will always have the people who will say: ‘Oh, that thing’s going to fail. Nothing is going to happen, that’s terrible, that’s not a Legion anymore,’” says Barham. “Then, you have the other people who say: ‘Huh, how come we don’t have windows? How come we don’t have a patio?’”
“We’re eight years away from the hundredth anniversary. I mean, that’s a pretty long time to exist … that’s what I think makes us unique, and that’s what gives us the standing, the ability to say: Yes, I remember when, and this is why we’re doing this now.”
Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 238: Bowness
“The Old-School Branch”
Brian Grewcutt, current president of RCL Branch No. 238, joined the Bowness Legion in 1970, when he turned 18, through his father who, like Barham’s, was a war veteran. He’s remained involved with the same branch, which opened in 1962, ever since.
“All of us kids automatically got a Legion membership,” says Grewcutt. “He signed us all up.”
“We had a [different] building they called the ‘Chicken Coop,’ down by the tracks first. I was a little kid then. That’s where Mom and Dad first joined, and then they built this and everyone came here.”
The Bowness branch represents a distinct change from the glitz of the new Kensington building. The air has a slight lived-in smell. The walls are adorned with old photographs of past branch presidents, the former Ladies Auxiliary group and, of course, the Queen. Beer costs $5 a bottle, and is advertised on old wall hangings next to the serving windows that lead to the kitchen. Apart from the membership, not much has changed in this branch over the decades.
“It was a lot busier,” says Grewcutt. “I guess there was more money available. The economy was probably a little better, and people were able to come out. They didn’t have the fear of the ‘drinking-and-driving’ thing so bad in those days.”
“People were still responsible, but they didn't have to worry about some ‘big brother’ sitting around the corner waiting for them to get in their cars or anything,” says Grewcutt, laughing. By ‘big brother,’ he is referring to the police.
“I think that made a big difference, too, in our attendance, and, because we’re in the middle of the community, it’s easy-access to walk over here for a lot of people who live in the area,” he explains before diving back into thoughts of the old days of the Bowness Legion.
“Everybody supported everything. We had volunteers, like for Remembrance Day, any activity that we did. We’re probably proudest of all the volunteers. It’s still pretty good here. It’s not as good as it was, but it’s still pretty good that way.”
Grewcutt explains that although the membership numbers fluctuate, it tends to hover between “700 and 750,” with old members that leave being replaced regularly with new ones.
“We’ve probably had closer to 800 a couple times, maybe, but it fluctuates pretty fast. People move away, people pass away, people get mad and quit,” Grewcutt says, again laughing. “That’s not too often though.”
The rise is generally seen during Stampede Week every July when the Legion is open to the public, and is usually comprised of young people. Grewcutt attests this to modestly-priced beer sold at the canteen. Another major draw, he explains, are those interested in the sports offered by the Legion, primarily shuffleboard and pool, but especially darts.
“Dart players love to come here and play because we have good players, medium [ones], and bad [ones],” Grewcutt says. “Doesn’t matter how good you are, you can still join.”
While the Bowness Legion is home to many seniors, many of whom have been there since the beginning, Grewcutt guesses the average age of members to be around the “forties and fifties.”
Similarly to the Kensington Legion, members are discouraged from wearing hats indoors, but the Bowness Legion also discourages other things such as the use of bad language.
“All you can do is ask people to be respectful of who’s around you when you’re talking, and if you’re using bad language and they complain? Sorry, we gotta say goodbye to you for a week, or two weeks, or three months,” Grewcutt says, referring to suspensions that can be doled out as a consequence of complaints. However, he further explains that such suspensions rarely happen.
When asked, Grewcutt explains that he’s only been to the Legion in Kensington once, but has seen many members transfer from the new branch since it opened its doors.
“I’ll bet you there’s been 20 or more that have transferred to our branch,” says Grewcutt. “That’s a small number for us, but I’m sure they’ve transferred to other Legions as well.”
“There’s no sports in there anymore. They’ve got a couple of dart boards, I believe. That’s it.”
Furthermore, Grewcutt laments the loss of the old Kensington branch.
“They had a huge building, a huge kitchen. It was all on one level, and that’s how a Legion should be in my mind,” he says. “The restaurant is nice, but did you look at the prices on the menu? Senior citizens can’t afford that. A lot of them were coming here, they didn’t transfer here, but a lot of people were coming here just to eat cause it was more affordable.”
“They really hurt their old membership,” insists Grewcutt. “Sure, they’re getting new members of the younger people coming in that can afford to go to that high-class restaurant, and they’ve really shot their drink prices up [in the Member’s Lounge] compared to other Legions.”
“I don’t know how they’re going to survive, to be honest with you.”
Grewcutt stresses that this is his personal opinion, and that he might be wrong.
“Maybe this is the thing of the future, maybe this is the way to go,” he says. “They seem to think that young people are the ones that are gonna keep the Legion alive. In a way, you do need the young people to step in when I’m too old to do what I’m doing.”
When it comes to the Bowness branch, Grewcutt explains that he doesn't feel pressure to update anything, but knows change is inevitable.
“We’re old-school, still,” says Grewcutt. “Our priority is our veterans and seniors. If we took away all the activities with seniors, if we said no … you can’t have these dart leagues and stuff, and if we shot the prices up, we’d probably close the doors.”
The Bowness Legion was approached by one developer interested in buying the building, but when Grewcutt invited them to a meeting with the members to pitch their plan, they never showed up.
Another worry, though, for Grewcutt is that new veterans — those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq — aren’t signing up for the Legion.
“As years go on, there won’t be any veterans, if that continues. There won’t be any veterans for us … that’s what we do. We raise money, we support veterans,” he explains. “That’s all going to go away. There won’t be any veterans anymore to keep the Legions going.”
“We don’t want to get it to where we’re just another bar, another bar in the community.”
- By Alec Warkentin