04/09/2014 06:30 EDT | Updated 06/09/2014 05:59 EDT

Should the federal government help struggling Legion branches?

It’s a story Royal Canadian Legion branches and other veterans organizations have been telling for years. Aging buildings. Dwindling membership. Trouble finding new members and making ends meet.

Now, the city wants to help local branches put together a survival plan, but it's an idea that isn't getting a warm reception from federal Legion officials. 

On Tuesday, the city’s veterans committee voted to spend two months conferring with Legion branches and veteran service clubs on how to be more sustainable.

The exercise will end with a letter to Veterans Affairs Canada about possible “sustainable funding” to help clubs stay afloat, said Coun. Sam Merulla, a committee member. But federal Legion leaders are wary of any plans that might divert limited federal money to legion branches, away from serving veterans directly. 

Merulla's east Hamilton ward has a lot of veterans organizations. He’s heard from many of them about their declining membership and declining revenue.

“It’s not a new problem, and it’s not only a local problem. It’s a national problem.” And “we need to find new tools to allow them to be sustainable.”

“They’re all on the brink,” he said.

If council ratifies the decision this month, the city will extend an invitation to Hamilton veterans’ organizations asking for input on how they can be more sustainable, Merulla said. The city is also inviting the Minister of Veterans Affairs to the unveiling of a new memorial in Gore Park next year.

Struggle to survive

Christine Cholette is treasurer of the 87-year-old Royal Canadian Legion branch 58 on Barton Street East. It’s the city’s oldest branch, and she worries “every day” about its survival.

At one time, the branch had more than 2,000 members, she said. Now it has about 300.

“I write the cheques, and I try to figure out which one I’m going to pay first.”

Branch president Jeannette Scott, who’s been there for 44 years, said these lean years are unprecedented. She traces the downturn back to when the province banned smoking there. Revenues took a dip and never really recovered, she said.

There are other factors, such as an aging membership and lack of new members. The branch used to be full of veterans who worked at Stelco and Dofasco, she said. But as the companies cut jobs, veterans moved to other areas of the city.

Money should go directly to veterans

Also, Canada simply has fewer citizens fighting in wars than 70 years ago, hence fewer veterans, Scott said. And even though non-veterans can join Legions, it means fewer are looking.

“Last June, on my first day of this term, we owed hydro $18,000,” she said. “Now we’re only a month behind in all our bills. But it’s a struggle to get the money together.”

There used to be nearly 400 members in the ladies auxiliary, said Shirley Fearnley, president of the auxiliary. Now there are about 30.

But Gord Moore of Waterloo, national president of the Royal Canadian Legion, doesn’t like the idea of asking Veterans Affairs for help.

The national organization, formed in 1926, already lobbies Veterans Affairs for money for veterans services, he said. If there’s money to be had, it should go to that and not branches.

Legions need to downsize

Provincial command helps struggling branches, he said. He also recommends branches sell their large buildings and downsize if they can’t afford the upkeep.

The Legion has also launched the One By One membership campaign, where existing members encourage their friends and families to join. That includes encouraging younger veterans.

Moore hasn’t seen any figures yet. But in theory, he said, it should work.

“I’m not trying to discourage the committee. All I’m saying is we have to look at other avenues.”

Branches are closing

Bruce Julian, provincial president, agrees.

“If the idea is going to Veterans Affairs and asking them to support Legions, we’re not in favour of that,” he said.

The very existence of Legion branches benefits veterans, he said. But “a branch is supposed to survive on a good business plan.”

Many branches are struggling, he said. Already this year, two have closed in Toronto.

But city governments are in the best position to help, he said. Many, such as Hamilton, offer tax exemptions. But the city also determines how much gaming revenue branches get to keep through fundraisers such as bingo, break-open tickets, 50/50 draws or meat draws.

“If I remember correctly, we’ve always had a little bit of a problem in Hamilton of not wanting to give more than two per cent of the profit to a branch,” Julian said. “In a lot of municipalities, it’s up to 50 per cent.”

Legion contributions are 'astronomical'

The general issues committee will approve the decision on April 16, followed by council on April 23.

The city’s veterans committee is comprised of veterans and two council representatives, and everyone agreed to the move, Merulla said.

Legion branches must be preserved, Merulla said. They hold community fundraisers. They act as meeting places. Their contribution is “astronomical."

“They are hurting, and it’s incumbent of us as a city to take the lead,” he said.

“We want to put together a plan of action.”