This sister of WW II vets is at her legion nearly every day — but it's struggling to find new visitors

The largest Royal Canadian Legion branch in the province started as the Great War Veterans Association St. James Branch No. 1 in 1917. Today, it offers older members a place to socialize, as it struggles to bring in younger veterans.

St. James legion member takes pride in 'helping my fellow veterans and those who went before me'

Violet Wall comes to the St. James legion branch in Winnipeg almost every morning during the week with her friends to enjoy a cup of coffee and conversation. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Three friends sit around a table in the basement of the St. James Royal Canadian Legion branch in Winnipeg, drinking coffee. 

For the past two decades, Violet Wall has come here almost every morning with her friends Allan and Rita Barker — a ritual that included Wall's husband, Ed, until he passed away a year ago.

"One day at a time," Wall said, when asked how she is coping with the loss of her husband.

Wall says it's the companionship she finds at the legion that keeps her coming back.

"I feel welcome," she said. "It's a very friendly place and you feel very comfortable just sitting and having a cup of coffee or a meal or whatever, and it's more friendly that going to a coffee shop, especially by yourself."

Wall, like most of the people in the legion on a recent Wednesday morning, is a senior.

And while the Royal Canadian Legion — and this branch in particular — has a long history, its future is a bit less certain.

The St. James branch of the Royal Canadian Legion is the largest in the province, and still has around 1,100 members. It formed out of the Great War Veterans Association Branch No. 1, which was established in 1917. It would become the British Empire Service League Branch No. 4 in 1926, and around the same time it moved into its current location on Portage Avenue.

Ronn Anderson has served on the executive of the St. James branch since 1993. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Ronn Anderson, who served in Germany from 1968 to 1976, became a member of the branch's executive in 1993. At the time, he said there were a few First World War veterans and many Second World War veterans still involved.

Today, all of the First World War veterans are dead, the number of Second World War veterans is shrinking fast, and younger veterans of the Afghanistan war and Canada's peacekeeping missions haven't joined in the same numbers as previous generations.

"There are a few that joined, but we find that the veterans today are more involved in the daily lives and the survival mode, if you like," he said.

"You know, everybody has to have two jobs, everybody has to have their family, and we understand that. But we still are actively pursuing the younger veterans to join the Royal Canadian Legion and assist us in doing that same very thing — to assist our veterans."

For now, though, it's still an important meeting spot for older legion members, like Violet Wall. And many of them have increasingly rare first-hand memories of the wars Canada has fought in, and stories to share.

Her husband served in the naval reserves, and two of her older brothers fought in the Second World War. She remembers being a teenager when they went overseas.

"I never thought too much about it, I guess, because I was so young," she said. "You just accepted it. It was the war."

After they returned, she says her brothers didn't talk much about their experiences in the war.

"I'm glad we didn't have the news coverage then that we have now because it would be very difficult."

'We're very lucky that we won'

While Wall and her friends sip their coffee, a group of men have gathered around some of the pool tables on the other side of the room. Among them is 88-year-old Cliff Cooke, who some of the others playfully refer to as "Cookie."

"Because of the 'e' at the end," Cooke laughs.

Cliff Cooke loves coming to the legion to play a game of pool. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

A member of the navy for 20 years, Cooke joined the legion 45 years ago. He says it's the company of his "comrades" that makes him want to come back.

The St. James branch will hold its annual Remembrance Day ceremony in Bruce Park on Sunday. This Remembrance Day holds special significance for Cooke because it is the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, he says.

"We're very lucky that we won. A hundred years ago, it was quite a battle," he said.

Hart Kapitoler, also playing pool at the legion, has a much different connection to the Second World War than most Canadians. His father was drafted into the German army and died from a sniper's bullet while fighting on the Russian front, five months after Kapitoler was born.

He jokes that at one time, people might have been offended to have a German in the legion — but that time has passed.

"They're nice enough not to hold that against me," he said.

Hart Kapitoler's father was drafted into the German army and died while fighting on the Russian front when Kapitoler was five months old. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Rick Gustafson spent much of his time in the navy reserves in hospital, for various ailments including pneumonia and food poisoning. Despite that, he remembers his time in the reserves fondly.

"Nobody had as much fun as I did," he said.

Gustafson played the bass drum in a marching band, and people started teasing him, comparing him to the Energizer bunny.  

"So we had a dinner one evening with a lot of the Shriners and the Scottish Rite members and everybody there, and they wanted our band to play after supper. So we did. I got dressed up as the Energizer rabbit," he said.

Rick Gustafson says nobody had more fun than he did in the naval reserves, despite the fact he spent much of his time in hospital for various ailments. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

It's those kind of memories the Royal Canadian Legion hopes a new generation of members will come forward to create.

Anderson, who says the legion has been his life ever since he retired in 1998, says it's a good feeling to be part of the legion.

"It gives me a real feeling of satisfaction that I've accomplished something — that I'm helping my fellow veterans and those who went before me."

With files from Nadia Kidwai

About the Author

Cameron MacLean

Web Writer

Cameron MacLean is a journalist living in Winnipeg, Man. where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience covering news in the city and across the province, working in print, radio, television and online.