‘Fighting battles on many different fronts’

Langley’s Legion Branch #21 has found itself at a crossroads
and is working to build its next generation of members

  • Jun. 6, 2012 5:00 p.m.
From left: Langley Legion branch #21 president Janice Poustie, second vice president Barb Prystupa and first vice president Shirley Blair.

From left: Langley Legion branch #21 president Janice Poustie, second vice president Barb Prystupa and first vice president Shirley Blair.

The band is striking up in the corner and the steady hum of a dozen different conversations fills the room as people pull up chairs to visit over a few drinks and maybe enjoy a game of cards or throw some darts in the upstairs hall of the Langley Legion.

It’s a typical Friday afternoon crowd — old friends catching up on the week’s news.

Something you don’t see here, though, is a lot of young faces.

“We have an old image,” says Walter Poustie, a 27-year member of the Royal Canadian Legion.

When people think of the Legion, it’s as “a place where old soldiers went to drink and tell war stories,” adds Walter, who started out as a member of the pipe band  and is a former member of the Legion executive.

And, as an organization, it’s one that only comes to mind for many Canadians each Nov. 11, as they gather at community cenotaphs to remember the nation’s fallen soldiers.

The truth is, it’s much more than that, says Walter.

It’s an organization with a rich history of not only honouring and aiding the nation’s war veterans, but of fostering the development of young Canadians as well, through academics, athletics and programs promoting cultural awareness.

Since the 1950s, for example, young track and field athletes from across Canada have been supported by a Legion program which helps with their development, and hosts an annual meet. This year, the event will be held in Prince Edward Island, but in August, 2013 and again in the summer of 2014, Langley will host between 800 and 1,000 athletes from across Canada.

While they are here, the athletes will train for a week and spend two days competing.

“There’s a lot of money put into that,” says Walter. But the outcome speaks for itself, he adds.

“Eighty seven per cent of athletes who participate in our track and field program go on to enter the Olympic program.”

Among them is Langley heptathlete Georgia Ellenwood, who is aiming to compete in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

Then there are youth ambassador programs and poster and essay contests tied into Remembrance Day.

“Two years ago, a nine-year-old from Langley won Dominion (national competition) for poetry. It was done really well,” says Janice Poustie, Walter’s wife and president of the Langley Legion Branch #21 executive.

Still, attracting younger people and dispelling that “old” image has remained a challenge.

Between its aging membership, ongoing financial troubles and society’s changing interests and priorities, the Legion is “fighting battles on many different fronts,” says Walter.

“We’re at a crossroads. Our old veterans are disappearing, we’re in competition with pubs and casinos.”

“Over the last years our supporters and members are starting to decline. They don’t go out in the evenings like they used to,”  says Janice

It was another member who talked Walter into joining the Legion nearly three decades ago — but it didn’t take much convincing, he admits.

“(It was) all of the activities and what the Legion stood for — I have a real soft spot for veterans,” says Walter, who first joined the White Rock branch before coming to Langley.

In the nearly three decades since the Pousties joined the Legion, a number of changes have been made at the regional and national levels, in an effort to include and appeal to a broader segment of the population.

“One of the biggest things the Legion has to do is evolve and we haven’t in the past,” says Janice.

“We’re working hard, but we have some catching up to do.”

A more relaxed dress code is now in place and the requirement of a military background was abolished in an effort to cast a wider net.

For the past 10 years, Legion membership has been open to any Canadian citizen who is 19 or over.

For those who aren’t necessarily interested in joining or who want to check it out before committing, non-members are welcome to come in and enjoy a drink.

“All we ask is that you sign the guest registry and conduct yourself accordingly. The same thing we ask of everyone,” said Janice.

But they are not simply looking to pad their numbers; they want members who will take an active role in the organization.

As of last year, Langley Legion had 864 members.

“If we had half of those being active members, we’d be thrilled,” says Janice.

Coupled with those memberships challenges are the financial concerns the Langley Legion has faced for some time and which were made worse by their move into their new building on 56 Avenue. After purchasing the building, the branch was forced to spend more than $1 million on upgrades to the structure, leaving them with a level of debt they had not anticipated.

Last January, the Langley Legion placed itself under the financial stewardship of the B.C./Yukon Command in an effort to put its house back in order.

As one of 153 branches in the B.C./Yukon region, the Langley organization’s plight is hardly unique, but the branch strives to remain vital.

Run almost exclusively on volunteer labour, the local Legion has turned out cribbage players and curlers who are able to compete at the provincial and national level — their men’s curling team placed second at Dominion competition this spring.

Then there are bus trips, pancake breakfasts on Sundays, bake sales and numerous special events — veterans’ dinners, Vimy Day, D-Day, Cruise In and, of course, Remembrance Day — held each year.

Charitable work is another crucial component of Legions across Canada, and Langley is no exception. Funds raised each autumn through poppy sales are used to help local veterans and their families.

“All these things are done that nobody knows about. We put a lot of money into youth and seniors,” says Walter.

And it adds up. Each year across Canada, the Legion returns $500 million to communities.

“That’s a lot of money,” says Walter. “The problem is, we’re poor at PR. We don’t tell the public what we do.”

For more about Langley’s Royal Canadian Legion Branch #21, call them at 604-534-3615 or visit them online at langleylegion.com.

•••

Update: Since the interview for this article was conducted, Shirley Blair has taken over as president of the Langley Legion.

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