Why Royal Canadian Legion Halls Are Now Hipster Havens

Has Canada's most prominent veteran's organization abandoned its members?

Illustration of men and women at a poolhall
Illustration by Mariah Llanes

Someone telling you to take off your hat is usually the first hint that you’ve entered a Royal Canadian Legion bar. The meaning behind the military tradition of removing headgear in canteens, however, is often lost on civilians. In Vancouver’s east end, the president of Branch 179 sits at a faux wood table and describes the two groups that pass like clockwork through the bar’s doors.

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“From noon till seven o’clock, it’s what you see,” says Pete Salmon, gesturing to the older male clientele. On the televisions overhead, a puck drops and the patrons focus on the game— all except for a pair of twentysomethings in the far corner, who are spinning the handles at a foosball table. These two are early arrivals from the second shift that will fill the bar later tonight.

“After seven o’clock, these rooms are bopping with the younger people,” says Salmon. By 10 p.m., there’s not a forty-year-old in the joint. “I wouldn’t come in,” adds Gerry Vowles, who served as a peacekeeper during the Cold War and is now first vice president of the branch.

This Legion hall has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years. Maybe it’s the unpretentious air— the faded carpeting underfoot and flat lighting overhead, the military plaques and flags that hang on the walls. Whatever it is, it’s become cool among civilians. These new, young members have changed the feel of the Legion, but they’re also the ones keeping the lights on.

The new patrons mark a larger shift happening across Canada, one that ultimately doesn’t have so much to do with age as it does experience. Legion halls, often a home away from home for veterans and service members, are now full of civilians— only a quarter of its 275,000 current members have spent time in uniform.

As the gap between the number of veterans and civilians continues to grow, and as Legions start catering to the latter, some are wondering whether Canada’s most prominent veteran’s organization has abandoned its mission altogether.

The Royal Canadian Legion was founded in 1926 to advocate on behalf of the 584,000 First World War vets. It proved to be a worthy champion of former service members and advised the government on improving veteran health care benefits and pensions. Each successive conflict pumped new members into the organization, and following the end of the Korean War, there were approximately 1,825 branches across Canada.

Modern warfare, however, is more mechanized and requires fewer flesh-and-blood soldiers. This has inevitably made an impact on the Legion’s bottom line: the number of living Second World War and Korean War veterans is nearly equal to the total size of Canadian Armed Forces today. As a result, Legions across the country have been shuttering and amalgamating.

To address declining numbers, the national organization opened up membership to all Canadian citizens in 1998. For a small annual fee anyone could now be a legionnaire, and civilian numbers grew over time. This action paved the way for the revival of Legion bars as hipster hangouts— with cheap beer and pickled eggs, bingo nights and rec room vibes, they have a kitschy cachet of cool.

Some branches, such as 179, have capitalized on this perception. Ten years ago, Salmon and Donna Harrison, bar manager, started focusing on what young people want: in with the pool tables and rock music, out with the curmudgeonly staff and country and western. It’s worked. Every month, Branch 179 brings in around fifteen new members, many under thirty, and it now boasts the third-highest membership numbers in the country.

This focus on new blood is essential, as Legions have to do more than cover their own general expenses. More than 90 percent of Branch 179’s annual $40 fee goes to regional command. And 15 percent of all bar sales are allocated for community services, including a local cadet group that meets in the building. “If we were going to run this place on memberships alone, we’d be dead,” says Salmon.

To keep the Legion afloat, they’ve increased their focus on revenue, and managed more than $1 million in bar sales last year. “That’s a lot of these things,” says Harrison, holding up her Budweiser. Vowles credits Harrison and Salmon with saving the branch, allowing it to continue the Legion’s mandate to support veterans.

Blending young and old, civvys and vets, doesn’t always go smoothly. In April 2016, the Ottawa Citizen reported that an eighty-two-year-old woman complained to Legion headquarters in Ottawa, saying that her Manitoba branch was bullying members who were veterans. And in November of that same year, Afghanistan veteran Jamie Keating posted a video that went viral in which he said that a New Brunswick branch forbade him from laying a wreath for nine fallen comrades during a Remembrance Day ceremony. Keating said the request was denied because he wasn’t a member of the Legion, and many saw it as a sign that the organization had forgotten that its purpose is to advocate for veterans. “The Legion will not be around in ten years,” he said to the camera. “Mark my words.”

Not a generation has passed without infighting between legionnaires. When soldiers returned home after the Second World War, veterans from the First World War didn’t want to let them into Legion halls. Arguments revolved around which generation fought the “real” war. “And then the Korean veterans came back, and the Second World War vets didn’t want them to come in the door,” Vowles says.

But today’s clash is fundamentally different; it’s about whether the Legion represents veterans at all. In 2005, the federal government introduced the New Veterans Charter, which replaced lifetime disability payments with lump sum remittances for many veterans. The charter was unpopular with veterans, but the Legion initially endorsed it. Though the Legion later backtracked, the damage was done. In a 2016 survey on why current and former military personnel are no longer joining the Legion, one respondent wrote, “new vets feel betrayed by that [support of the charter]. Vets don’t forget easily.”

In the same survey, many also noted that the Legion was not reaching out to the current generation of service members. Times have changed, and alcohol and cigarettes are no longer the great social binder that they once were. New veteran organizations, such as Wounded Warriors, have lured in members by offering specific activities, including PTSD equine therapy and fly-fishing. Erin Neate, an army captain posted in Kingston, Ontario, said she likes visiting the Legion on Remembrance Day, but the place feels relevant to her only that one day a year. “I would love the Legion to be a place where I want to go,” she explained. But the dated ambience doesn’t appeal to the thirty-year-old woman.

“It’s hard to design a catch-all one-stop shop for everybody,” says Brad White, the dominion secretary of the Royal Canadian Legion. The Legion is starting to recognize this reality and now runs campgrounds and coffee shops. It is also opening alcohol-free meeting spaces. “What we have to do is adapt,” White explains. “We do have to move on and look at who we are and how we’re providing our service.”

Back at Branch 179, the hockey game is nearly over, and the room is growing louder with the younger civilian crowd. Vowles excuses himself. He wants to get home for an early night.

Laura Trethewey
Laura Trethewey (@ltrethew) is the author of The Deepest Map: The High-Stakes Race to Chart the World’s Oceans and The Imperilled Ocean: Human Stories from a Changing Sea.
Mariah Llanes
Mariah Llanes has drawn for the Globe and Mail, Swerve, and Narratively.