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Yellowknife Legion branch reopens but slumping revenues, lack of aid pose major hurdles

Royal Canadian Legion branches across the Northwest Territories are struggling to keep the lights on and meet operating costs as they emerge from the three-month Covid-19 lockdown.

John Mahon, president of the Alberta/NWT Royal Canadian Legion Command, oversees 161 branches in Alberta and five in the NWT. He said that his region, like many branches across Canada, faces the challenge of making enough revenue to cover costs.

It's so much of a problem that there 19 locations in his region that could close imminently one of which is in the NWT if federal supports aren't made available. He declined to say which NWT branch.

"Covid-19 is the straw that broke the camel's back. If you take away the revenue stream, this is what can happen," said Mahon.

National media outlets have reported recently that 157 of the 1,381 branches across Canada are facing permanent closure.

The Royal Canadian Legion Vincent Massey Branch 164 returned to regular hours last month after three months of closure from Covid-19. Tammy Roberts, branch president, said operations costs are a common concern among branches like hers, but safety for veterans and members is paramount as services become available.
Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

The national headquarters of the Royal Canadian Legion has requested financial assistance from the Prime Minister of Canada's Office at least two times since the pandemic was declared in mid-March.

In a June 3 news release  Thomas D. Irvine, president of the Royal  Canadian Legion Dominion, stated that federal relief programs for non-profits do not help branches with operational costs incurred as the result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Legion branches also don't qualify for relief programs available to business. As a non-profit, branches raise money for veterans to help them apply for benefits, combat homelessness and support other community initiatives.

Legions also host Remembrance Day ceremonies and school engagements every year on Nov. 11.

"I am angered to see that businesses whose sole purpose is to provide entertainment are getting relief, while our Legion branches, which are literally helping to save lives and improve communities, are struggling with the fear of closure, with no government help in sight," Irvine stated in the letter. "Without immediate financial relief, the Legion may soon be unable to continue to provide essential services and supports to veterans and communities across Canada."

There are currently 1,107 Legion members in the NWT  across all five branches. Inuvik's Legion McInnes Branch 220 leads the way with 428 members, followed by Hay River (218), Fort Smith (186), Yellowknife (182), and Norman Wells (93).

Tammy Roberts, branch president of Branch 164 in Yellowknife, said the outlook of the financial situation of branches across the country and territory is "discouraging." While operating costs were admittedly a challenge when closed, the Yellowknife branch is able to carry on and also ensure that its members are safe, she said. 

Tammy Roberts, president of the Yellowknife branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, says it's discouraging to see Legion branches across the country struggling. Her branch resumed operations on June 13, although seating capacity is limited to 25. photo courtesy of Tammy Roberts

"I was very saddened to hear that some of the Legions are closing down because I know what our Legion means to its membership," Roberts said. "We are exploring some of the financial supports that are available to us and we are in the same situation as any other business in Yellowknife."

Namely, the targetted financial assistance is for rent relief, she added.

Revenue normally comes from bar sales and Nevada ticket sales as well as a weekly meat raffle and 50/50 draws. Much of that is not happening now, even though the Yellowknife branch reopened to regular hours on June 13. 

"The biggest change (at the branch) is that our capacity has gone from 100 to 25 (people)," Roberts said. "Safety for our members is foremost."

As executive director of the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT, Roberts said she's aware of non-profit assistance available, but cannot identify any to directly assist veterans.

"The Legion is not a charitable organization that is serving people, technically. So we don't apply and aren't eligible for funding that I am aware of. That being said, we have never had any vets reach out to us for immediate need. Vets and members were just happy to be able to come back in the Legion again."

NNSL Media contacted the office of Minister of Veterans Affairs Lawrence MacAulay last week. Cameron McNeill, his media spokesperson, stated that the federal government has met with Royal Canadian Legion representatives in recent weeks, including regarding the organization's request for financial assistance.

“Any non-profit or charity organization that is providing support to vulnerable populations whose programs and services have been disrupted by the Covid-19 crisis is eligible for the Emergency Community Support Fund," McNeill stated in the email. "Legions providing support to their communities or to veterans may be eligible for funding.

 The minister says the federal government's response to the pandemic is ongoing and is open to "exploring ways to ensure that we’re providing Canadians and our community partners with the support they need. We hope to have more to say on this shortly.”