Legions struggle to stay afloat as veterans age

Across the country, veterans and the people paying tribute to them will pack Royal Canadian Legion branches on Monday. But some of those institutions struggle to stay open the other 364 days a year.

Keewatin branch near Kenora looks to sell building

Branch president Rob Stejskal helps out in the kitchen at the Slovak Legion in Thunder Bay's east end. Stejskal says he hopes more people will join the legion for the camaraderie and the history. (Adam Burns/CBC)

Across the country, veterans and the people paying tribute to them will pack Royal Canadian Legion branches on Monday. But some of those institutions struggle to stay open the other 364 days a year.​

Rob Stejskal, the president of the Slovak Legion in Thunder Bay's east end, often worries about the future of his branch — and the fate of legions in general.

"Our membership has been declining because of the age [of members]. And new members, well, they're ... hard to come by," he said.

District 8 Commander Ken Milenko (Supplied)

Ken Milenko, a district commander who oversees 16 legions in and around Thunder Bay, is more hopeful.

"I still see an uphill battle ... I can't kid you there," he said. "But we're not going to die any time soon, unless someone stops making wars — which, as you probably know, isn't going to happen."

Milenko said there were 30 branches in northwestern Ontario when he started nine years ago, and that number is the same today.

"We have our struggles, but there [are] some promising signs that membership is slightly increasing, and that the branches are doing quite well financially," he said.

Milenko said some legions have sold off property, but that doesn't mean they've had to close.

Branch 13 in Keewatin, Ont., near Kenora, recently put its building up for sale.

"It's getting to the point where we just can't afford to keep the doors open," said branch vice-president Gerry Kasprick.

"There's different reasons, one being volunteers are all getting old, and we're getting burnt out."

Rob Stejskal said the Slovak branch faces a similar issue, but he's optimistic about the future.

"We hope that people join, just to see the camaraderie and the friendships that you make — and the history," he said.

Stejskal said a number of obstacles need to be overcome to ensure the legions don't become part of history themselves.

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