They stood deep in thought at the 11th hour. Jim Fargey thought of May 30, 1944 in Italy when his Sherman tank and its five-man crew were hit by enemy fire. Only he and another man got out alive.
Rod McPherson thought of his brother who spent three years and eight months in a Hong Kong prisoner of war camp and refused to talk about it afterwards.
What the 700 other people in the Royal Canadian Legion hall were thinking isn’t known. What they did, though, was rise in tribute as the veterans marched out after the Remembrance Day memorial service Wednesday.
Once a year on November 11, similar ceremonies play out in scores of gathering places throughout Manitoba as people pause to remember the men and women who served in Canada in wartime.
And when the final bugle notes fade, the banners are folded and the crowds go home, the legions remain inextricably woven into the fabric of small-town Manitoba. Not just on Remembrance Day, but every day.
Most rural communities formed legion branches after young people from farms, villages and towns – kids, many of them – flocked to enlist during the two world wars. Some did not come back. Others did but they were never the same again.
Today, only about 150 branches remain in Manitoba as old soldiers fade away and world wars become a distant memory.
Some legions have closed their doors. Others with dwindling memberships struggle to stay open.
But still others, like the Carman legion, are thriving.
“We’re doing pretty good,” says McPherson, 78, the branch president, as he and Fargey chat with a reporter.
A near-empty lounge in the early afternoon belies a hub of activity. The hall regularly buzzes with receptions and special events. Every Friday night, 40 to 60 people gather for the only bingo in town. Meat draws help to bring them in. So do VLTs installed in the late 1990.
Some may object to VLTs in a legion, but not in Carman. “They pay the bills,” laughs Fargey, 85.
But the legion is more than just about entertainment. It’s also about community building.
The Carman branch, with over 400 members, helps fund local hospital beds. Two seniors’ residences in town carry the legion name. The legion helps sponsor high school students to sports camps. Donations go to the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and the local library.
This is not unusual. What Carman does is typical of legions everywhere, says McPherson.
“It’s not just about remembrance. We support the community.”
But remembrance is still a big part of what it’s about, says Gord Walker, president of the Royal Canadian Legion’s Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Command.
Walker, 76, says attendance at Remembrance Day ceremonies is making a comeback, possibly because of Canada’s current military engagement in Afghanistan. A few years ago, at Walker’s own branch in Dauphin, the event moved from a church to the local arena because crowds had become so big.
Walker, the son of a Boer War veteran, acknowledged legion membership is declining as aging Second World War veterans die. The Manitoba Northwestern Ontario Command, with a membership of 26,000, lost roughly 800 members in the past year.
But legions attract non-veteran members to help stem the losses, said Walker.
“We’re still pretty positive in our recruiting efforts and we have been quite successful right through Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario in doing that.”
Even when branches do close down, members often transfer to other nearby branches and remain active, Walker said.
Originally, only a war veteran could belong to a legion branch. But a watershed came in 1973 with rule changes allowing sons and daughters of veterans to join. Then grandchildren were added. Then affiliated non-voting members were admitted. Today, any Canadian citizen over 18 can apply to be a legion member.
Walker admitted some veterans took the changes rather hard.
“It was quite difficult for our veterans. There was some pretty emotional discussion at times because they were really passing the torch over to non-veterans,” he said.
“But I think they saw if legions were going to continue, they would have to do that. Which they did.”
Today, McPherson sees legions filling a gap created when local service clubs fold. The Lions Club in Carman is no more. Some other groups are just hanging on. But not the legion.
“We’ll be here for a long time yet.” [email protected]