Royal Canadian Legion needs injection of youth, Afghan vet says

Throughout its 88 years, the Royal Canadian Legion has been recognized as the voice of veterans, particularly veterans of the world wars. But one veteran of Afghanistan wants to attract younger people to the organization and push it to advocate for a new generation.

Craig Hood wants younger veterans to join up and get the legion to speak for a new generation

There's a new effort to make the Royal Canadian Legion relevant and effective for a new generation of Canadian veterans 2:35

Throughout its 88 years, the Royal Canadian Legion has been recognized as the voice of veterans, particularly veterans of the world wars.

The legion's more than 1,400 halls, in cities, towns and villages across the country have served as both parlour room and pub, a place for darts and cribbage and fellowship over a beer.

It's an old-timey image, and it's been shunned by younger veterans of newer wars, such as those in the Balkans, for instance, and Afghanistan.

The legion has also lost some of its voice to other veterans' groups who advocate more loudly.

But one young veteran is hoping to help resurrect the legion, one new member at a time.

When Craig Hood was a young soldier, he saw the legion as a fun place to stop by on Remembrance Day, but otherwise thought "that was the place where all the World War II veterans hung out and shared war stories."

When Hood returned from the Afghanistan conflict, he started looking for a veterans' organization or club, a place for fellowship and a group to help advocate on behalf of veterans.
Craig Hood, a veteran of Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan, wants more young veterans to join the Royal Canadian Legion and push the organization to advocate for a new generation of former soldiers. (CBC)

What he saw worried him.

"Well, there was a lot of infighting going on. Veterans didn't seem clear as to what exactly they wanted," he said.

Most of the disagreement was around the new veterans charter, the suite of services and benefits for veterans brought in by the federal government in 2006.

The legion headquarters supported the charter, even though veterans' advocates such as Sean Bruyea considered it a raw deal.

"I don't find myself necessarily on side with the legion, with the way they do things, which is a rather naive and out-of-touch approach. And often arrogant at Dominion Command, which doesn't filter down to the lower membership," Bruyea told CBC News.

Veterans speak out

Bruyea wasn't alone. More and more veterans started speaking out, concerned about how their government was treating them.

Sean Bruyea has spoken out against the veterans charter, a new benefits arrangement for veterans originally backed by the legion that provoked a vocal backlash against the government by some veterans. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The legion frequently was left out of the debate.

"Many Canadians, all they know of the legion is that's the place for the old guys, and the old vets go there in the blue blazers and the grey slacks," said Scott Ferris, who is in charge of membership and communications at the legion.

In the 1980s, Ferris said, the legion had more than 600,000 members. Now, those numbers are down to about 300,000. Less than a third are actual veterans, and the rest are so-called affiliate members. About a third of all members are over 75 years old.

Ferris admits the legion needs to evolve.

"There's a lot of change that is going on in the legion across the country, because we know we have to change, we have to adapt to the modern realities. People want to join online, they want Wi-Fi in legion branches," he said.

And those younger members also want the legion to speak up.

"Well, change comes in many forms, one of them being time and persistence. And we have to get the veterans into the branches," Craig Hood said.

"They have to get more active, they have to speak their mind, they have to address their concerns and push that up through all the levels," he said.

Hood is asking his friends to join up and to reach out to other young vets.

So far he's reached 1,500 people with his campaign.

And down at the legion hall, no one's complaining. Like a good war story, fellowship transcends time.


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