Legions embrace rock shows, gastro pubs to keep doors open

Declining memberships and financial troubles continue to plague many legions across Canada. It's a troubling trend but one that has seen many legions look for creative ways to stay relevant and open.

Canada's legions are getting creative and will try anything to stay alive in changing times

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      A half-naked front man paces a well-worn Calgary stage, screaming frenetically at a crowd of enthusiastic heavy metal fans.

      It's just another night at Calgary's No. 1 Legion.

      The legion's general manager, Susan MacCauley, recalls sitting through that show, part of Calgary's annual Sled Island music festival, and thinking less about the music than the club's massive $7,000 monthly heating bill.

      "It goes in one ear and out the other," she says. "All I see is — cha-ching, cha-ching — we are paying the bills."

      Rock shows aren't the only way MacCauley is using this sprawling two-storey building in the heart of Calgary to raise the money needed to keep this legion branch open. From professional wrestling matches to e-cigarette "vaping" competitions, no event is too bizarre to be booked, provided they can pay. 

      "The other one was that circus thing where that woman was taking condoms out of her nose," MacCauley says. "I mean that's bizarre, but bizarre or not, that's what is paying the bills."

      Memberships in decline

      General manager Susan MacCauley will book pretty much anything into the No. 1 Legion in Calgary, provided they are willing to pay. (Erin Collins/CBC)

      Membership at the No. 1 Legion has plummeted to just shy of 600, down from about 2,500 a quarter-century ago.

      It's a trend across Canada, one that has seen the number of legion members dwindle to about 300,000 — down from 400,000 a decade ago.

      MacCauley hopes hosting events that attract a younger crowd will not only help with bills, but also boost membership sales. She says every person who comes through the door is another potential member.

      "It gives them an idea of what veterans are all about, because everyone always asks questions while they are here."

      'Asset-rich, cash poor'

      A three-dimensional model of the plans for a redeveloped No. 264 Legion in northwest Calgary. The proposed building includes retail space, high-end condominiums, offices and a gastro-pub, along with the legion's hall. (Erin Collins/CBC)

      The No. 1 Legion certainly isn't the only branch struggling to keep its head above water. On the other side of the Bow River, another branch is taking a different path to try to stay afloat.

      About 100 people mill about, checking out three-dimensional models and blueprint drawings inside the Kensington Room of the No. 264 Legion in northwest Calgary. This public meeting is a key step in the branch's grand plan to re-develop its prime piece of Calgary real estate.

      The plan is to split this property in two, with a local developer building the branch a new building while constructing an eight-storey condominium complex that the company can sell off.

      The legion's parcel will include an office complex, retail space and a gastro-pub that will help keep the branch in the black, according No. 264's Mark Barham,

      "It will provide us with the financial wherewithal to continue," he says, adding that, if the redevelopment scheme works, it could be a model for other struggling Canadian legions.

      "Right across the country we have branches that are sitting on prime pieces of property. In essence, we are asset-rich in a lot of centres and we are cash-flow poor, because we do have declining membership."

      Grand plans like this may be a lifeline for legions. but they aren't always welcome in the communities that the group has quietly operated in for decades.

      Gerard Van Ginke of the local West Hillhurst Community Association worries about the scale of the planned development and what it might mean for the legion.

      "They just need to make sure they don't jeopardize or sacrifice their values in order to continue running a business," says Van Ginke.

      Moving in with the Elks

      Legion branch No. 291in Okotoks Alberta re-opened in the basement of the local Elks lodge after being closed for 25 years. (Malcolm Hughes)

      Boosting revenue is just one way to balance a struggling legion's books. The other is to cut costs, which is exactly how the Okotoks branch, about 30 minutes south of Calgary, is making a go of it.

      Branch No. 291 closed 25 years ago, when its membership dropped below 50. But last year the branch was able to re-open in the basement of an Elks Lodge, another local service club.

      Malcolm Hughes came up with the creative way of resurrecting his local legion, striking a deal to get a space in the Elks Hall rent-free.

      "I mean, we could have started a legion," Hughes says. "But having a facility to meet would have been a different proposition, had we not had access to the Elks building."

      Hughes says his branch now has about 180 members, a number he would like to see grow by attracting more young people who may not have any ties to the military. Despite the shift, for Hughes, legions remain an important part of Canada.

      "The primary role of the Legion is to maintain remembrance, so whoever is doing that, it's really quite irrelevant."

      Back at the No. 1 Legion, it's darts day for the local oil and gas crowd, and things are relatively calm compared to concert nights. Susan MacCauley says Canadians are going to have to get used to legions across the country doing things a little differently.

      "This legion — well, all legions — aren't just about darts and draught beer any more." 

      About the Author

      Erin Collins

      Senior reporter

      Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.


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