From nearly closing its doors a few years ago to being recognized provincially as a model for other branches, the Outlook Legion has demonstrated the kind of determination it will take to not only come back from hurdles the coronavirus pandemic has presented, but also to tackle major projects it has in the works.
John McPhail, Royal Canadian Legion Branch 262 President indicated that as recently as 2013 the branch was facing closure due to declining membership. "The situation was so serious we had to change our bylaws so that a quorum for conducting business at a meeting would consist of only five members," McPhail explained. For a branch that received its charter in 1946, it was inconceivable that after 74 years the Legion would no longer contribute to the community. "Therefore," McPhail explained, "we dug in our heels and, with a lot of hard work, slowly rejuvenated the Branch."
Today there are 54 members, including a number who live in other towns and provinces, who have their membership in this Branch.
McPhail said, "We are encouraged to have so many dedicated, skilled and hard-working people who devote countless hours to the many activities of Branch 262."
The community, in turn, is fortunate to have such a vibrant local branch that offers great support to a number of endeavors, including scholarships for high school graduates and music festival participants, along with cash prizes for student winners in the Legion Poetry, Essay and Poster contest. The Branch has also funded many local athletes to attend the highly regarded Legion Track and Field Camp. The support of young people is just one of the areas in which the Legion is involved in the community. Their foremost purpose is to assist Veterans and their families.
While some may picture a Veteran as having served in the great wars of the 20th century, today's Veterans come from a different demographic, represented by 125,000 men and women who have served in peacekeeping roles in countries such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cambodia, Haiti, Syria, Rwanda and Korea—to name a few. Many Canadians have returned from conflict with serious psychological issues, what we now know to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. McPhail said it may come as a surprise to many Canadians to learn that there may be up to 2,250 homeless Veterans in Canada. "I regard this as a national disgrace," McPhail remarked. Branch 262 has sought to help where they can. In the past couple of years they have covered tuition for a Veteran to learn a trade at a community college, provided another with emergency dental assistance, and most recently, installed a wheel-chair lift in a home at the request of a Veteran's wife.
Since 2016, Branch 262 has donated almost $60,000 to programs for Veterans and other important causes. Many thousands of dollars have been donated to the Outlook Health Centre. Funding this important work, as well as the day to day operation of the Branch, requires tremendous effort on the part of Legion members and therein lie the concerns over the impact of COVID-19.
Of the approximately 1, 350 Royal Canadian Legion branches across Canada, it is feared as many as 50 may not survive the aftermath of measures taken to combat the pandemic. While Branch 262 is in a better position than some, McPhail says the loss of revenue caused by the shutdown is cause for concern. "Branch 262 has had no income since March," McPhail explained. "The three main sources of income—hall rental, ‘Thursday Night Bingo,’ and ‘Friday Night at the Legion’—have dried up, at the same time as monthly expenses have remained the same." Additionally, a new roofing project that was budgeted and contracted before the shutdown has reduced the Branch's bank balance considerably. This is all coming at a time when the Branch is undertaking a major project that will require significant funding: the construction of Veterans Memorial Park, scheduled to open in 2021.
Located on the green space at the intersection of Saskatchewan Avenue and McKenzie Street, the project will feature three local war memorials moved to one spot. The Memorial Arch, built in 1926 by the Great War Veterans to coincide with the opening of the original swimming pool, will serve as an entrance to the new memorial park. The Cenotaph, constructed in 1968 will be placed in the circular area at the end of an 80-foot walkway. Behind the Cenotaph will be three steel memorials first erected in 2007, while the flags of Canada, Saskatchewan and the Legion will form a backdrop.
The ambitious project carries a considerable price tag. “The relocation, restoration and placement of the three memorials, along with the installation of lighting and flagpoles will be costly,” McPhail indicated. To that end, Branch 262 is working with the Town of Outlook to plan and seek funding for the Park, and an application will be made to Veterans Affairs Canada for partial funding. The Legion will also be looking to the community for their support in this important endeavor. "Even before plans were formally announced, two generous local donations were made to the Park," McPhail shared. "It is hoped that private and corporate donations will assist with the successful completion of the Park which will continue to honour veterans well into the twenty-second century."
Dollars raised from the annual Poppy Campaign is used to directly assist Veterans and their families. Therefore, any other projects, building maintenance or upgrades must be funded from other sources. There's good reason to believe community support will be there, based on what has been witnessed in the past number of years.
People are turning out faithfully for Thursday and Friday night events and are referred to as 'friends of the Legion'. So, too, are the local businesses which generously support the Poppy Campaign. Broader community support is evidenced by the ever-growing audience at the annual Remembrance Day program which has outgrown the capacity of the Legion Hall and is now held in the Outlook High School.
"All of this encourages us to believe that the community will get behind the construction of the Veterans Memorial Park," McPhail remarked.
The Legion motto "Memoriam eorum retinebimus" ("We Will Remember Them") informs much of what Branch 262 does. A few years ago the Branch placed 130 memorial markers at the graves of Veterans in eight local cemeteries. That vital work continues. As recently as July 9 markers were placed at the graveside of Drs. Tom and Helen Ormiston who served in the British Armed Services during World War II. The Park will be another important element in remembering and honoring our Veterans.
In spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic, Branch 262 looks to the future with optimism. While the complexities and costs related to reopening Bingo and Friday Nights at the Legion means those events will be delayed into the Fall, they are hoping to begin renting out the hall again fairly soon.
Outlook Legion Branch 262 needs to look no further than its own past as it sets a course for the future. They have emerged as a stronger, more focused organization, and truly a model that branches can set their sights on as an example of persevering through challenges. Anyone interested in joining the Legion, or in learning more about how to support Veterans Memorial Park, is invited to contact President John McPhail. He is helping lead a Branch that is eager to retain its vital role in Outlook. "We are confident that the current problems will give way to better times," he said. "Branch 262 is determined to continue its role as an important contributor to the community.”