Five years ago, Jim Johnson made a trek back east with a fun goal in mind.
“I wanted to have a beer in each Legion,” he said.
As president of the Royal Canadian Legion Agassiz Branch 32, he thought it would be a great way to get around and visit with like-minded people, and support other branches.
And one of the big branches is Branch 6, in Thunder Bay, Ontario. But when he arrived at their front stoop, he didn’t find a place to pull up a stool. He found an office door.
Turns out, while Branch 6 is still active and operating — helping veterans in the area through fundraisers like the perennial poppy campaign — they do so from a small office.
“There is no longer a hall, no longer a bar,” Johnson said. It’s something that’s happening around Canada, and it’s a possibility in Agassiz, too.
As visitor numbers to the Agassiz Legion continue to dwindle, keeping the doors open is becoming less and less feasible, Johnson said.
While membership numbers are at about 260 right now, there are too many days when only a half dozen people come into the bar. The bartender is a volunteer, but there are still bills to pay.
It’s a shame, Johnson said because the Agassiz Legion has a lot going for it. They’re one of the few places in town that has wireless internet, and their big screen t.v. shows all the big games. There’s a lot of history in the building, too. A display case shows off wartime paraphernalia, including a rare Prussian officer’s helmet that predates the First World War. There’s a piece of the wall from Afghanistan.
Then, of course, there’s the well-priced drinks — including specialty coffees.
While Johnson said the Legion won’t die completely, they may have to consider closing the Legion hall.
We have enough Legion members to keep operating, but what form that takes is another matter,” he says. “There are lots of Legions that don’t have a bar operating because it’s no longer feasible.”
It’s a “worst case scenario” that Johnson hopes won’t happen, as the loss of an affordable hall for community functions would have a huge impact on the groups that rent it, and the events that the Legion sponsors in the hall.
One of those groups is the Agassiz Centre for Education.
Throughout the year, the ACE students partner with the Legion in many ways. It’s a partnership that gives the kids a sense of pride. They tend the gardens, cook in the kitchen, and at the end of the year, they even hold graduation there.
There is a popular Senior and Teen lunch held regularly, that many of the ACE students take part in, and many of them have polished their cooking skills in the industrial-sized kitchen. There’s even a special scholarship for ACE students funded by the Legion, in addition the scholarships the Legion offers for all Agassiz students.
“ACE would not be the success that it is without the Legion,” said ACE administrator Sandy Balascak. “It just kills me that people are not using this wonderful hall.”
There are a lot of misconceptions about who can and cannot use the Legion, Johnson said.
Most importantly, he wants people to know that you do not need to be a member to go in, or to rent the hall. During their open hours, a few members are always on hand to sign in guests. And yes, the Legion is open to women these days, too.
Johnson also wants everyone to know that you don’t have to have a military background to be a Legion member. You just have to have a willingness to sign the members list, and pay the annual $43 fee.
“We would hope you would help out at some point, selling poppies or something similar,” Johnson said, but it’s not a requirement.
The money raised through all Legion activity goes toward their number one mandate, which is to help veterans. And while the number of Second World War veterans is always getting smaller, there are new veterans coming back from today’s conflicts. And at some point, many of those men and women will need assistance, too.
To find out more, visit www.legion.ca.
To see the hall in person, drop by on Saturday, May 5, when ACE will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo.
There is a special afternoon barbecue to celebrate from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., with burgers cooked by the ACE students. And in the evening, there’s a dance starting at 9 p.m. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5 for members, $10 for non-members.