Will modern veterans pick up the torch and keep the Legion going?
A man in a dark sweater, standing next to a portrait of the Queen, blares numbers into a microphone on a stage in east-end Toronto. It's Saturday mid-afternoon, just five days before Remembrance Day, at Branch 258 of the Royal Canadian Legion.
"Eighteen. Three. Twelve," the announcer shouts, reading the digits off a ticket.
It's a raffle. The prize: an assortment of meat products. This is a fundraiser for the Legion, the country's preeminent institution for preserving the memories of Canadian servicemen and women.
The three old men sitting at the back of the hall, enjoying a drink and ignoring the raffle, aren't shy to talk about the problem facing the Legion.
"I'm afraid when we leave — the only way we're going to leave is when we leave the Earth, of course — who's going to replace us?" asks John Vassair, who served in the Canadian Forces for 20 years.
Vassair looks around the Legion hall. He and his two buddies — all in dress uniform, medals proudly displayed over their hearts — are the only vets there. These days, it's not uncommon to find Branch 258 filled with non-veterans.
The Canadian Legion's membership has declined steadily in recent years, as the population of veterans from the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War has dropped by more than half. It's estimated there were close to 400,000 veterans in 2001; today that number is 176,000.
Vassair's pal Al Armstrong, who fought in France, Belgium and Holland during the Second World War, is worried about the future of the institution he's belonged to for 45 years. "The saying is that a country that forgets its history is bound to repeat it. And I think the Legion is one of the ones that push remembrance."
It does so through its annual red-poppy campaign and programs like its living history project, which sees veterans visit schools across Canada to tell stories and answer questions.
At 86, Jan de Vries, the third buddy, works nearly full-time hours in November, speaking about his time on the front lines of D-Day and the push through to Holland in 1945. "People don't know what it's like to go through a war. So that's why I like going to talk to the schools."
De Vries estimates he speaks to about 2,000 students every year.
But finding enough veterans is a struggle. "I'm trying to get people to go to the schools, and it's very difficult. Last year I turned down school after school," says Korean War vet Vassair, 79, who organizes living history visits in Toronto.
The Legion's national headquarters, Dominion Command in Ottawa, denies there is a crisis in membership.
"Absolutely not," says Pat Varga, Dominion president of the Legion. "The Royal Canadian Legion has been around since 1926, and we'll be around for a long time in the future."
But Varga admits that with dwindling numbers, carrying out some of the core Legion tasks is more difficult. "We're handling it. It's tough some times. And our branches are pushed. But they're still out there with their poppies, they're still out there doing their school visits."
Modern conflict, modern solution?
Talk to anyone associated with the Legion and they will tell you there is a way forward.
"The guys from Afghanistan, they really have to lean into it," says Armstrong, 85. "I'm hoping when these guys come back from Afghanistan, they're going to step in and take over to keep it going."
But will the younger men and women who have served in Kandahar and Kabul take up the call?
The Legion was founded in 1926 as an organization to help heal those damaged — physically and psychologically — from the First World War. When soldiers returned from Europe and the Pacific after the Second World War, and even from Korea several years later, there was still little official assistance to help with reintegration into society.
Today, Canada's Afghan vets are offered access to social workers. Their families have support systems on most military bases. They turn to email and Facebook to keep connected.
Square-jawed and broad-shouldered, Capt. Matt Littlechild is the new face of the Canadian Forces. A combat engineer, he served an eight-month tour in the province of Kandahar in 2008-09. Coming back to Canada was a "challenge," but Littlechild says he's not sure the Legion would have helped.
"I'm 27 years old," he says. "I think the average age out of what I've seen out of the Legion is in the 60s and beyond. It's not really my group of people yet."
It's the word "yet" that has Legion officials holding out hope.
They will remind you that most First and Second World War veterans did not join the Legion upon their return to Canada. The same, they say, is true with Afghan vets.
"I think that we are also realistic," says Varga, the Legion president. "When our young men and women come home, they have lots to do in their own lives to get their lives and their families back on track."
Littlechild doesn't hesitate when asked if he'll one day join the Legion. "Absolutely. Because we'll need a place to get together and swap stories … and the Legion is a perfect place for that. And I know 20 years down the road, I know I'll be ready for that."
Coming together to tell stories is one of the main reasons soldiers join the Legion.
"I wanted to see fellows that I knew. And the camaraderie that you get in the Legion, that you can't get anywhere else," de Vries says.
As the Saturday meat raffle winds down, Armstrong swigs his beer alongside de Vries and Vassair. The promise of the Afghan vets one day picking up what they call the "torch of remembrance" heartens them.
Armstrong looks around at the walls covered in plaques and decades of photos that document the history of Branch 258. "I'd hate to see this end up as some kind of another club, other than ours."