Interest in Remembrance Day and the welfare of returning veterans seems to be gaining interest, say local vets.
Before Canadians began serving in Afghanistan, membership in the Royal Canadian Legion had been flagging as the older veterans died, and public interest in them seemed to wane.
RCL Abbotsford Br. #15 president Doug Matthews takes heart, however, that interest in the Remembrance Day ceremonies has increased in recent years. Local services have been well attended. The Matsqui Army and Navy Veterans unit regularly draws 150 to 200 people on Nov. 11 for its Armistice Day service, said current vice-president Carol Taylor.
The annual Mission memorial event fills the 700-seat Clarke Foundation Theatre.
Despite being outside in often inclement weather, more people, including young people, attend the Abbotsford ceremonies each year.
"It just seems to be getting better. We're so thankful to the young people, the cadets and so on. They're getting more information at school or on TV," said Matthews.
As an example he recounted a story in which he was manning a poppy table a couple of years ago. He sold a poppy to a five-year-old boy, who then gave it to his mom. The boy lingered and said he wanted second one, but didn't have change for another poppy. Matthews offered to give him one if the boy could tell him what the poppies were for.
"'They're for the dead soldiers,' he said. It really brought a tear to my eye," said Matthews, an 18-year Air Force veteran. "Somebody is teaching them, and he was just five. It was really heartwarming."
That kind of awareness and concern translates into generosity, which the legions see first-hand in their communities during the poppy fund drive, which runs for about two weeks before Remembrance Day on Nov. 11.
For most legions, like Abbotsford's, it is a significant fundraiser for the year. That's why local legion members are puzzled the Abbotsford Costco outlet on Sumas Way has restricted the number of days they could set a table up at the store.
The veterans were permitted to offer their poppies for four days, Nov. 2, 3, 9 and 10. In the previous two years, the legion vets were welcome to be there every day for the two weeks of the campaign,
"I don't know why. I've tried to find out but we've had no response. They say [the order] came from headquarters in Toronto, but as far as I know, we're the only ones [in Canada] who are restricted," said Matthews.
"Costco has always been a good source of income, it was one of our best sites. We could bring in $700 to $800 a day, sometimes a little more or a little less."
The legion also has tables with veterans present at Sevenoaks Shopping Centre, Zeller's, Walmart, and new this year at Canadian Tire.
Matthews said they won't know until the end of the campaign whether Costco's move has hurt them. Last year, the Abbotsford legion collected close to $40,000, and Matthews hopes the total will be about the same.
"We take care of our vets and their dependents," he said, to buy items like wheelchairs, or comforts during a hospital stay.
"Sometimes we even pay their rent if they had a bad month. I'm on a pension and I'm barely making it," he said.
"Some pensions are very small and getting smaller the way Ottawa is cutting back."
While older veterans receive monthly income, he said younger veterans who served in places like Afghanistan get a lump sum, but that's hard to budget out over a lifetime.
"Some are only 22, 23 years old. Could you budget that for the rest of your life?"
The Abbotsford legion also gave $10,000 - including $1,000 from the ladies auxiliary - to the Legion Veterans Transition Program, a relief and recovery program for trauma-related stress from military service.
Any funds the branch has left after December goes to sponsor local cadets, "because they are our future veterans," said Matthews.
The Mission legion also directs its poppy funds directly back into the community, going to local non-profit groups such as the Mission Hospice and many others, said Wendy Wenberg, the secretary-treasurer for the Mission RCL Br. 57.
- Help the poppy fund through your phone: text 'Poppy' to 20222 to make a $5 donation. The BC/Yukon Command of the Legion directs funds to a new generation of vets for affordable housing, education, trauma repair, relief and recovery.