Zone Commander Judy Brown (left) presented Shirley Wyatt with her 50-year Legion service pin in 2018. (File photo)

Zone Commander Judy Brown (left) presented Shirley Wyatt with her 50-year Legion service pin in 2018. (File photo)

West Kootenay Legions managing way through pandemic

Gates: On the whole, everyone is managing …

By John Boivin

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The zone commander for the Royal Canadian Legion in the West Kootenay says he doesn’t see any local branches closing – if things return a little more to normal by the fall.

John Gates was responding to a recent news report that one in 10 Legions across the country could close because of financial stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic shutdown.

“On the whole, everybody here is handling it,” says Gates. “But it’s difficult.”

Gates oversees nine Legions in the West Kootenay, with about 1,790 members. While all Legions have felt the pinch from closures and social distancing rules, local branches are doing reasonably well.

But each branch is a little different, and is being cautious, notes Gates.

“You look at the age demographic – the high 60s, early 70s is the average age of Legionnaires,” he says. “And that’s just the bad spot, according to [BC’s provincial health officer] Dr. Henry. That’s why Castlegar decided to shut down until September. Their whole executive is in that group.”

Besides Castlegar, branches in Slocan, Nelson, and Rossland have also chosen to remain closed until September, he says. However, Rossland is usually closed in summer anyway, and Nelson’s been closed while the landlord does renovations.

Trail, Kaslo, and Nakusp are open four days a week, while Grand Forks is open for three. Grand Forks has laid off its staff and is relying on volunteers to remain open.

The Salmo branch has reported some difficulties, says Gates, but the organization has secured Columbia Basin Trust grants and is doing renovation projects this summer.

In Nakusp, Legion Branch 20 re-opened on June 17, after closing in March.

“Some days it’s not too bad at all, while other days we’re not paying wages,” says Harvey Truax, president of the Nakusp branch. He says the big loss for his branch is not having the hall to rent for bingo and other events.

“We went from about 15 people a day to some days with as few as six. Saturdays have been really bad because those are the days you count on the meat draw,” said Truax.

Truax says the draw, one of the branch’s biggest fundraisers, will be resuming in July. That attracts more people to the hall. And he says the Legion has some money in the bank “to tide us through,” as well as a donation from the national Legion.

“But it’s not going to do us a lot of good if we don’t get open soon,” he warns.

Other branches are different financially. Both Trail and Nelson are sitting on healthy nest eggs from selling their buildings in recent years, says Gates, while Slocan and other branches were doing pretty well before the pandemic and can weather the storm.

“In Slocan, it costs us about $500 a month to remain open – for phones and power. That’s not too bad,” he says.

Kaslo has always operated with many employees and big expenditures, says Gates, so he’s not sure how it will weather the storm long-term. But Gates doesn’t see any of the local branches closing anytime soon, though that would become more likely should the limitations on business and gatherings continue long after September.

The West Kootenay branches’ donations to the community haven’t been significantly affected by the economic impact of COVID to date. Gates says every Legion in the West Kootenay met its obligation to provide student bursaries this spring (about $10,000 of support in total). And he says the Slocan Branch, which supports projects from Playmor Junction to Summit Lake, will provide about $24,000 in assistance to various causes this year.

But donation sources are drying up.

“In Slocan, we didn’t do the Mother’s Day pancake breakfast this year, or the pig roast, which is the big one we normally do. We won’t be doing the Garlic Festival either because it’s not happening. Right there you have lost almost $10,000,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to give as much this year as we normally do.”

Gates says continuing public support is important to keep local Legions in good shape.

“Stick with your membership in the Legion if you are a member,” he says. “If we don’t have members, the Legion’s going to die. And if it dies, it’s a big chunk out of the fundraising for a lot of groups.”

— From the Valley Voice

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