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At 90, the Legion is still spry, but struggling

They were brave and adventurous, young men who went to war to fight for their country.
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They were brave and adventurous, young men who went to war to fight for their country.

Many never returned, some buried where they fell and died in the countries they fought to liberate; 118,000 Canadian soldiers perished in battle from the First World War to Afghanistan and Iraq.

For the past 90 years, those who came home would turn to the Royal Canadian Legion for comfort, camaraderie and remembrance.

In Calgary, crosses are planted each year in a grassy field on Memorial Drive past the Centre Street Bridge for those from southern Alberta who have died in Canada's wars and conflicts. In Edmonton, stone markers at the west end of the Convention Centre mark those northern Alberta residents who made the ultimate sacrifice in two World Wars and the Korean conflict.

At its 90th anniversary across Canada, the Royal Canadian Legion is at a crossroads with dwindling membership as more veterans pass on and fewer people join than in the past. But its role in Canadian life still shines bright, as generations of young people learn about the sacrifices of brave men and women before them for the cause of freedom.

There were many other young men and women who would join Canada's armed forces in war and peacetime. Phil MacAuley was one of those young men.

In 1970, he joined the Royal Canadian Navy right out of high school and served as a medic until 1975. Following his stint in the navy, MacAuley joined the Royal Canadian Legion in Calgary Branch No. 1. Today, at 63, he is the president of No. 1 Branch. He says there is still a role for the organization to play in Canadian life.

“Our biggest thing is remembrance, what has been passed on. To never forget what happened as a nation and as a people. There were lots of sacrifice with 120,000 people who gave up their lives in different conflicts. It's still going on, we're still providing peacekeeping in hostile areas,” he says.

Since he first joined the legion in 1975, MacAuley has seen the organization in Alberta, like other parts of Canada, gradually dwindle in membership as older veterans pass on and fewer younger veterans became members. Affiliate memberships were opened up to the public after MacAuley joined, but it has still not helped to boost membership significantly.

Of the 900 members in his branch, 10 per cent of them are regular patrons to the branch's activities which functions as a pub, dance and banquet hall.

Decline in membership is the story in almost every Canadian city, town or village; some branches have closed permanently. But MacAuley hopes the 90th anniversary will rekindle Canadians interest in the non-profit organization. “It is important. We represent peace, after those who have served,” he says, noting that veterans still come for the camaraderie and socializing it has become known for.

Branch No. 1 is designated a historic site by the City of Calgary. The two-story building houses walls of plaques with individual names to honor those Canadian soldiers who have died in battle and those who have passed on since they came home to Canada. Like other Legions across Alberta and Canada, there is a network of services for veterans. They include help with pensions, understanding their benefits many receive from Veterans Affairs, aids for disabilities, food if necessary at Canada's only veteran's food bank, help for the homeless veteran and even funeral services if requested.

“The biggest problem is veterans are proud. They don't want to ask for help. We're trying to get the word out that services can help them,” he said.

MacAuley, whose grandfather fought in the First World War from 1914 to 1918, feels positive that younger generations of Canadians know the history behind the veterans' sacrifices for their country.

“We do that very well. We get the poem and poetry contest all across Alberta for students every year, leading up to Remembrance Day,” he says. Winners are then selected for each age group in the province.

Besides Remembrance Day ceremonies, battles such as Vimy Ridge in the First World War, D-Day in the Second World War and Victory Day in Europe and Japan in the same war are marked by ceremonies organized by the Royal Canadian Legion throughout Alberta.

On its 90th anniversary, the Alberta/NWT High Command will travel to branches in different towns, villages and cities across the province to mark its anniversary in a caravan of remembrance.